The Kentucky House passed a controversial bill Thursday creating a $25 million scholarship fund, paid for by private donors who would receive tax credits in return. Low- and middle-income families in Jefferson, Fayette and Kenton counties could use the money to pay for private school tuition.
To drum up support lawmakers added a provision shortly before the vote that would fund full-day kindergarten across the state, a long-sought win for public education advocates
Currently, the state funds kindergarten for half a day, while local districts pick up the rest of the cost.
Versions of the tax credit scholarship program exist in at least 17 states. Private school advocates have tried for several legislative sessions to get a program passed in Kentucky. Those advocates were displeased with the version of the bill that came out of a joint legislative committee on Thursday morning, which did not allow families to use the scholarships for private school tuition.
“This bill is weak, watered down and does not fully allow parents a choice,” Henry County Republican Felicia Rabourn said of the version passed by the committee.
Later Thursday, after three hours of debate on the House floor, members narrowly voted to add private school tuition back into the list of eligible expenses, but only for counties with populations over 150,000. Only three meet that criterion: Jefferson, Fayette and Kenton.
The amendment was brought by Eastwood Republican Jerry Miller, who said he could “not ignore the plight of children in poverty…whose parent would like to make the choice to move them to a school who better meets their needs.”
The measure also includes another controversial provision making it easier for students to attend schools outside of the districts they live in. Proponents say it gives families more options, but critics are concerned it could drain impoverished districts of students and the funding that follows them.
Still, the bill passed by a slim margin, 51-45. Many worry the tax credit scholarship program will further drain funding from public schools, which are already cash-strapped.
“What are we doing to improve our public schools, in which students seem to be suffering?” Jefferson County Public Schools teacher and Democratic Rep. Tina Bojanowski asked on the floor. “Or are we breaking our public school system and then saying we need to pay for private education because our public school system is broken?”
The measure now heads to the Senate for further consideration. House Speaker David Osborne, a Republican from Prospect, said it will need 60 votes on final passage, rather than a simple majority, because the kindergarten provision would have a large appropriation attached to it.