Education

Kentucky Governor Vetoes Controversial School Choice, Pension Bills

By Valarie Honeycutt Spears, Lexington Herald-Leader (MCT) & Jack Brammer, Lexington Herald-Leader (MCT) — March 25, 2021 5 min read
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear addresses the media at a news conference at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky on Sept. 23, 2020.

Gov. Andy Beshear on Wednesday vetoed a school choice bill under which private school tuition in Fayette and other larger counties could be paid from newly created education opportunity accounts.

Beshear also vetoed HB 258, which would place new teachers in a new hybrid retirement plan. He said it would cut retirement benefits for new teachers.

“This would harm the commonwealth’s ability to attract the best and the brightest,” he said.

Beshear said House Bill 563, the school choice bill, was unconstitutional on several grounds and favored the wealthy, giving them tax benefits.

If it becomes law, the measure would “greatly harm” public education in Kentucky, by taking money away from public schools and sending it to unaccountable private organizations with little oversight, he said.

Beshear said the bill would drain as much as $25 million from public education, more than requested for textbooks and technology in the K-12 state budget for this year.

He said the bill would divert money from the rural private schools that need money so badly.

The bill would also allow public school students to attend districts other than their own. Beshear said he was willing to work with public districts on the reasons some superintendents say that measure would help them.

Under the bill, an individual or corporation would apply to the state Department of Revenue for a tax credit, indicating how much they are going to donate. The donation then goes to an educational account granting authority. Once there, low income families can apply for a grant to pay for tuition for a public school, online classes, tutors and other services and private school tuition in certain counties.

The bill has faced heavy opposition from teacher, students, and superintendents in Kentucky, who feared it would harm public schools.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass on Wednesday called the bill “deeply flawed” and “half-baked” and Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell reiterated his opposition.

Among the critics was Acting Fayette Superintendent Marlene Helm, who said she was “dismayed” that the bill was brought up late in the session with little public discussion.

Beshear said the bill was unconstitutional by diverting money from public education to private entities and by sending state money collected from taxpayers across the state to only certain communities.

EdChoice KY President Charles Leis, a proponent of the bill, said Beshear was wrong to veto House Bill 563.

“By doing so, he chose to listen to special interests like the KEA over the voice of Kentucky parents who are begging for help. For too long, families in Kentucky who aren’t wealthy have been left with no choice when it comes to education,” said Leis. “Voters across Kentucky agree that this should be the year that changes.”

“We ask Kentucky legislators to put students first and override the veto; every student across Kentucky deserves nothing short of the opportunity to have an education that fits their needs.,” he said.

Republicans House Speaker David Osborne and Majority Whip Chad McCoy said in a joint statement that Beshear’s assertion that the measure diverts money from public education was baseless.

“HB 563 would create a historic shift in our state’s approach to education by providing parents an unprecedented opportunity to meet their child’s educational needs,” the statement said. “While this proposal is new to our state, versions of it have been discussed and debated for several years and similar legislation is in place in neighboring states and across the nation. Rather than engage in a discussion of how we can improve educational opportunities for Kentucky’s children, the Governor and those who participated at today’s veto announcement instead continue to spread misinformation and engage in scare tactics.”

It would take a majority of votes of lawmakers in the state House and Senate to override the veto.

The full Senate approved it with a 21-15 vote as did the House 48-47 in a marathon session on the last day of the General Assembly before the veto recess.

Beshear did not say whether he would file a lawsuit if the General Assembly overrides the veto on March 29 or 30, but he said he thought the bill would be challenged in court because there is a constitutional provision that requires public dollars to be spent on public schools.

He said it shouldn’t come to that. Beshear said HB 563 was an “extreme bill” that would have longstanding ramifications that “I believe would be the beginning of the end to public education.”

Concerning HB 258 on teacher pensions, Beshear said it would cut retirement benefits for new teachers, harming the commonwealth’s ability to attract and retain educators.

It would require teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2022, to contribute more toward their retirement benefits, capping the state’s obligation at 10 percent of salary, and to work at least 30 years instead of the current minimum of 27 years.

Beshear noted that the bill comes at the same time the General Assembly has cut more than $70 million in his proposed budget that would help support health insurance benefits for educators’ families. The General Assembly also cut raises for school employees that were included in his budget, the governor said.

“I have continued to support raises and more benefits for our teachers because of educators like Laura Hartke, who teach during the day and drive an Uber in the evening and on the weekends to make ends meet,” said Beshear. “The lack of support for our educators is leading to fewer and fewer college students choosing teaching. This is not OK. If the ongoing COVID-19 public health emergency has taught us anything, it is the vital role our educators play in the lives of our children and in our economy.”

Beshear signed into law five bills he said would improve education.

Among those, Senate Bill 128 is known as the “school re-do” bill. It would allow public and non-public high school students currently enrolled in Kentucky to request to use the 2021-2022 school year as a supplemental school year to retake and supplement coursework already completed.

It would require local boards of education to either approve or deny all requests ad ensure students utilizing supplemental school years to be eligible to participate in Kentucky High School Athletic Association activities.

The bill had an emergency clause on it, meaning it took effect immediately upon the governor’s signature.

Senate Bill 101, Beshear said, will provide a “reliable funding stream” for vocational education and technology centers.

He said there is language in the budget bill that “would frustrate this” and he plans to line-item veto that in the measure.

Senate Bill 135 updates funding for higher education in the state to make sure it is distributed on a more sustainable basis, said Beshear.

It also will support efforts to enroll and graduate more Kentuckians with either a certificate or degree by 2030, he said.

Aaron Thompson, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, said the measure is “a common sense update” and “will keep campuses from falling off the fiscal cliff.”

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