Education Kentucky Politics

A measure to create a tax-credit scholarship program is moving through the Kentucky General Assembly. But bill sponsor Chad McCoy (R-Bardstown) removed the measure’s most controversial feature — he struck K-12 private school tuition from the list of items the scholarships could fund.

“We took out private school tuition,” McCoy told the joint Appropriations and Revenue committee Wednesday afternoon. “And I want to be clear: I personally hate that…But quite frankly enough people complained that this was just a way to fund private schools.”

Funds to help middle and low-income families afford private schools have been at the heart of the proposed Education Opportunity Account program for years. The program is popular with advocates for privatizing public education, and there are versions in at least 17 states. 

McCoy’s version would allow individual and corporate donors to get back a tax credit for 95% to 97% of their contribution to the scholarship fund, up to $1 million a year.

Families would be eligible to apply for scholarships from the fund if they have a household income less than or equal to 175% of the threshold for reduced-priced meals. That’s $84,000 for a family of four. The scholarships could amount to thousands of dollars a year per family and could be used for fees, tutoring, textbooks, technology costs, therapies and other educational services. 

The proposal is capped at $25 million a year.

Opponents of the tax-credit scholarship program say it diverts much-needed funding away from public schools.

Delores Pregliasco with the League of Women Voters of Kentucky opposed allowing the scholarships to cover private school tuition, saying lawmakers should use the funds to adequately fund public schools instead.

“There’s a long understanding that everyone’s taxes should support public schools because they benefit society as a whole,” she said.

EdChoice Kentucky and the Catholic Conference of Kentucky have been lobbying for several years to get the tax-credit program on the books in the Bluegrass State. But they opposed this latest version of the bill because it wouldn’t cover private school tuition.

Richmond, Kentucky, mom Desirae Caudill came to the meeting with the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. She urged lawmakers to add private school tuition back into the list of eligible expenses. Caudill said she struggles to keep paying private school tuition for her children.

“I’ve had to choose some months between paying bills and making sure that they are in the school that really meets their needs. Some children thrive in public school, and others do not,” she said.

Meanwhile, the change has not eased concerns among many public school advocates who say the language could still allow private schools to receive funding for fees they charge families for classroom materials, and a broad range of educational services outside of tuition.

“It’s really just a sneaky way of allowing private school kids to access resources through this program,” Jefferson County Public Schools lobbyist Abby Piper told WFPL News.

She noted that public schools are not allowed to charge students for textbooks or educational services for students with disabilities. Therefore, Piper said, it’s likely fewer public school students would benefit from the program.

The  bill would also make it easier for students to attend public schools in districts they don’t live in. Under the provision each school district would have to draft a policy for allowing students outside the district to enroll.

Some Democratic members of the committee raised concerns such an arrangement could promote discriminatory practices and racial segregation.

The committee is likely to vote on the bill Thursday.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.