A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Tony Watts: House Bill 563 is bad for public education, bad for taxpayers; support Beshear’s veto

Anyone who cares about public education and how their tax dollars are spent in Kentucky should be alarmed by a damaging piece of legislation that has been enacted by the state General Assembly.

House Bill 563 is the so-called “school choice” bill. It was passed last week by state lawmakers with virtually no public debate or input from teachers, parents, superintendents and board of education members.

Tony Watts

The bill requires Newport Independent Schools and every other public school district in Kentucky to adopt a policy accepting students who don’t live in the district. If a student leaves a district, state funding would follow that student to another district. That provision would benefit one district while harming another due to the reduction in state funds.

It also calls for the creation of Education Opportunity Accounts. Corporate and individual donors to these accounts receive a tax credit on their donation. The money donated to these accounts – up to $25 million – would then be handed out in grants for families to pay private school tuition in Kentucky’s largest counties, including Campbell County.

Granting tax breaks yanks tax dollars from the state budget at a time when public schools are not being fully funded by state lawmakers. That $25 million could be spent on textbooks, technology, expanding and enhancing high speed broadband internet and more. But under HB563, businesses and wealthy donors get a tax break while Kentucky’s public school students and districts get the shaft.

Let’s call these Education Opportunity Accounts what they truly are – private school vouchers, a concept many in the legislature have tried to enact for years. But since the concept of vouchers has consistently been defeated in Frankfort, the legislature is now simply rebranding with a new name.

Another fallacy of HB563 is the notion that the grants would help the neediest families. But it is mostly middle-class families that would benefit under the family income guidelines mandated in the bill.

HB563 is classic nose-under-the-tent legislation. With this bill, just the state’s largest counties are impacted. In future sessions, you can rest assured attempts will be made to expand into other counties, a move that would continue to diminish public education in Kentucky.

Those backing the bill should be mindful of what they wish for. Newport is proud of educating students with special needs. But it is important to point out that a private school does not have to accept the students it does not want. In other words, a private school can take our tax dollars, but it doesn’t have to take all of our kids.

HB 563 has far reaching implications and certainly deserves more scrutiny. We applaud Gov. Andy Beshear for vetoing the bill and we implore legislators to vote against overriding the veto. That will allow the legislature to hear testimony, take input from the education community and parents, take a harder look at how the bill will impact school districts and then make a more informed decision in the 2022 legislative session.

Now that Gov. Beshear has vetoed the bill, legislators have just two days – next Monday and Tuesday, the final days of this year’s legislative session – to override the veto with 51 House votes and 20 votes in the Senate.

It is important to remember that during the session, legislators failed to increase funding for public schools. But they rammed through a bill that reduces funds in the state budget for education and other needs while making it easier for families to flee public schools for a private education.

HB 563 is a bad bill that needs to be stopped.

Tony Watts is the Superintendent of Newport Independent Schools.

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