School choice, transportation and KEES: A look into some of this session’s education bills

Published 3:36 pm Monday, January 29, 2024

FRANKFORT — School choice was a key division on last year’s campaign trail — now, it divides Democrats and Republicans in Kentucky’s legislature.

It’s also one of many education-related bills filed so far this session. Here’s a review of some of the bills that might gain momentum.

School choice constitutional amendment

Friday, Rep. Suzanne Miles, R-Owensboro, introduced a bill to amend the Kentucky Constitution to allow non-public schools to receive state funding.

Currently, the state constitution reserves state funding to “common,” or public, schools. Miles’ bill would extend that, to give the legislature room to pass more school choice legislation.

Constitutional amendments require three-fifths approval in the House and Senate, but not the governor’s approval. If the bill passes the legislature, it may appear on the ballot in November for Kentuckians to vote on.

If a majority voted “yes” to providing state funds to non-public schools, the constitution would be amended.

The budget

House Democrats and Republicans unveiled their separate budget proposals earlier this month. They contain divergent educational priorities.

Kentucky’s school districts get state funding through the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) formula. It’s primarily based on average attendance numbers.

Currently, per-pupil base SEEK funding is $4,200. Both the House Republican and Democratic budgets would raise that to $4,368 in the 24-25 fiscal year.

The Republican budget increases it further to $4,455 in fiscal year 25-26, while the House Democrats do not.

However, the Democrats’ budget includes $1.17 billion more for all SEEK allocations than the Republican budget.

This includes Gov. Andy Beshear’s priority —mandated 11% raises for all public school employees.

It also includes $796 million to fund 100% of student transportation costs across the biennium, compared to Republicans’ 80% funding, and universal pre-K for all four-year-olds, which costs $344 million.

While the House Republican budget does not mandate raises, it includes a few requirements and warnings.

First, school districts must report on their website the percentage of its students that score proficient and distinguished in math and reading on an annual assessment.

The Kentucky Department of Education would have to post a ranked order of schools’ academic performance on its website.

Second, the budget states that the legislature is aware of surrounding states increasing minimum teacher salaries and the state of the local economy.

It directs local boards of education to “consider the actions of other states and the local economy and the related effect on recruitment and retention” when considering salaries for school employees.

A failure to report test scores or “make adequate progress in the recruitment and retention of classroom teachers and classified employees” may lead to school closures, board of education takeovers and potential consolidation of boards, the budget states.

Beshear and other Democrats have said that local school districts will have to use the additional SEEK funds for student transportation, and won’t have enough left for salary increases to meet recruitment and retention requirements.

Monday, Sens. David Yates, D-Louisville, and Robin Webb, D-Grayson, presented a bill that would allow schools to use non-school bus vehicles for flexible student transportation.

“This would save districts money, make bus routes more efficient, improve student safety, and reduce the amount of time that students are riding the bus each day,” the press release stated.

Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarships (KEES)

Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, wants to extend KEES money to non-certified schools, which includes some private and parochial schools.

Legislators of both parties seemed to welcome the part of Wilson’s bill, Senate Bill 7, that deals with KEES money, although several Democrats spoke out against another section of the bill that allows the Classical Learning Test as an alternative to the ACT and SAT.

KEES currently supports 65,000 recipients, with a total award amount of $114.4 million, according to a fiscal note.

Based on the average award amount and an addition of about 500 recipients under this bill, the cost would be an annual $878,500.

SB7 passed the Senate 33-4, and now heads to the House.

The Kentucky Proud School Match Program

Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong, D-Louisville, is focused on increasing the nutritional value and affordability of school meals for low-income students.

Senate Bill 40 would create the Kentucky Proud School Match Program, which would give every eligible school district 33 cents for every meal it provides using the federal government’s free school meal program for schools in low-income areas.

Armstrong’s bill would also identify and buy locally sourced Kentucky products for these meals.

Performance and productivity requirements

Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, would allow Kentucky’s higher education boards of trustees to remove presidents, professors and teachers for “failure to meet college or university performance and productivity requirements.”

These requirements are not specified, but will be decided by each institution’s board. Each faculty members’ performance and productivity will be assessed based on a one-in-four-year evaluation.

Although the bill does not specifically mention tenured faculty, Tipton said that they could also be impacted.

“Tenure is not a job for life,” he said in an Education Committee meeting.