Education Kentucky Politics

All eyes will soon turn to Frankfort as state lawmakers head to the capitol in person or virtually for the convening of the 2021 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly on Jan. 5. Legislators will have to decide what education initiatives to fund amid a relatively uncertain economic outlook and unprecedented pressures on school districts due to the coronavirus pandemic. And already, three controversial proposals for public education are in the works in addition to a budget. Here’s what educators are watching.

The Budget

Lawmakers are taking the unusual step of crafting a budget during 2021’s short session. The General Assembly usually passes 2-year budgets during long sessions (on even years), but in the spring of 2020, lawmakers decided the pandemic had made the economic outlook too uncertain to plan for two years. They passed a one-year budget for 2020, and decided to make the 2021 short session a budget year as well. 

School districts and state-level leaders have their eyes on what lawmakers will allocate in SEEK funding — that’s the funding the state gives to each district per student. Districts and Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) officials have been urging lawmakers to increase the average SEEK funding for years. SEEK has held steady at $4,000 per student for the last three years, but costs are increasing, putting increasing pressure on districts. 

“[The pandemic] compounded many of the issues that already existed, that require funding if they’re going to be improved, and of course there’s those unforeseen pandemic costs that we see on top of that,” Kentucky School Boards Association communications director Josh Shoulta told WFPL News.

Local districts are anxious that an overall reduction in state revenues may prompt lawmakers to cut back education spending at a time when schools are facing unprecedented needs.

Chuck Truesdell, incoming director of government relations for KDE, said the revenue outlook is rosier than previously forecast.

“It’s not like we’re going to be flush with cash. However, it’s not like there’s going to be a crash diet for state government,” Truesdell said, who has worked for the Legislative Research Commission’s budget office for many years.

Truesdell said KDE’s priorities for the coming session will be to “preserve and hopefully increase” the SEEK per-student average.

Meanwhile KDE is also hoping lawmakers will restore a number of items that have been zeroed out or slashed in recent years. They include millions in funding the state used to provide for textbooks and classroom materials, and $175 million in reimbursements for transportation costs.

State education leaders are also hoping lawmakers will restore funding to the Kentucky Academy for Equity in Teaching, a program that seeks to increase the pipeline of teachers of color and teachers from low-income communities.

Fully funding the Kentucky School for The Deaf and the Kentucky School for The Blind are also top priorities, according to Truesdell.

Pension Reform

In December, Rep. Ed Massey (R-Hebron) ruffled feathers when he unveiled plans to reform the state’s pension program for teachers, also known as the Teachers Retirement System (TRS). 

Though Massey has yet to make the draft bill public, he told an interim committee the plan is to create a new “tier” for teachers hired after 2022. Current teachers would keep the same retirement benefits. 

While current teachers would keep their defined benefit plan, new hires would have a smaller defined benefit, plus a defined contribution plan. Massey said the proposal has been crafted with many stakeholder groups at the table, including the Kentucky Education Association, the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) and the Kentucky School Boards Association.

JCTA president Brent McKim, who has been involved in negotiations, told WFPL News the overall amount of the retirement benefit for new hires would be similar to the benefit under the existing plan.

“Some combinations with age and years of service are better than the current plan, and some are not as good, but on average they’re similar,” he said.

A draft document showing the difference in retirement benefits under the proposed pension reform bill. Provided by Brent McKim

A draft document showing the difference in retirement benefits under the proposed pension reform bill. The changes would go into effect for employees hired after January 2022.

The proposed change doesn’t sit well with some educators, many of whom participated in mass sick-outs over previous attempts at pension reform under former Gov. Matt Bevin.

“Here we go again: lather, rinse, repeat,” Nema Brewer told WFPL News. “It’s just so frustrating.” Brewer is a Fayette County Public Schools employee and the cofounder of Kentucky 120 United, which organized the mass sickouts in 2018.

Brewer said her group will “never” support any plan that creates a new tier for new hires. She said all future employees should benefit from the compensation increases and better working conditions achieved through the collective bargaining efforts of the past. 

She’s also distrustful of efforts to pass pension reform during the pandemic, when visitors are barred from the Capitol.

“I think that it is a way to keep us out of Frankfort. I think it is a way for them to just tune us out to ignore our voices. And that’s not democracy,” she said.

Massey told an interim legislative committee in December his bill is an effort to “correct” Kentucky’s pension program, which many Republicans believe is too expensive. The program is currently underfunded.

Massey said legislators are “trying to be very careful,” in crafting a proposal with input from educator groups.

“We’re not trying to reignite anything, there’s been rhetoric about an attack or an assault on teachers that is not where we have had the conversation at all,” he said.

Tax-Credit Scholarships

Sen. Ralph Alvarado (R-Winchester) has renewed an effort to create a controversial tax-credit scholarship program. Under the proposal individuals and corporations would receive a 95% tax credit of up to $1 million for donating to a scholarship fund. A third party-nonprofit would manage the funds, and award them to families to pay for private school tuition, or other education-related expenses, such as school uniforms, computers, or required instructional materials. Students would be eligible to receive the scholarships if their household earned less than 200% of the income threshold to be eligible for free or reduced price lunch. That would be about $68,000 for a family of four.

According to the bill, the goal is “to give more flexibility and choices in education to Kentucky residents and to address disparities in educational  options available to students.”

The bill would allocate up to $25 million in the first year.

Tax-credit scholarships, and other private school voucher programs, raise hackles for many public school leaders, who worry the program would reduce funding available for public schools.

“We don’t want to do anything that potentially siphons money away from a general fund, particularly in a time when we know that the budget is potentially going to be tightened,” KSBA’s Shoulta said of the proposal. “We believe that there needs to be more revenue, not less.”

Making Tax Referendums Easier

Rep. Kevin Bratcher (R-Louisville) has filed a bill that would make it significantly easier to organize referendums against property tax increases passed by local school boards.

The proposal would require recall petition committees to gather just 100 signatures in order for a referendum to be called. Current statute requires a number of signatures equal to 10% of the total votes in the preceding election.

The proposal comes on the heels of an attempt by a group in Jefferson County to recall a 9.5% property tax increase passed by the board of education. Petitioners needed about 35,500 signatures. They turned in around 40,000, but a judge ruled thousands of them invalid, and threw the petition out. 

Shoulta said the measure would have a “major impact on a school board’s ability to do what they are elected to do.”

“School board members are elected by their communities, and a major part of what they are elected to do is levy taxes to fund schools,” he said. “I think you have a democratic accountability system in place that works.”

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.