Kentucky House Bill 149 presents fiscal dilemma surrounding public education


Julianna Russ

HB 149 establishes a tax credit voucher for families who send their children to private schools.

     Kentucky’s decades-long struggle for public education funding has accelerated in recent years. Now, the Commonwealth and the country at large face fiscal dilemmas that are sure to shape the future of public education for centuries.

     The two largest state pension programs in Kentucky, the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) and the Kentucky Retirement Systems (KRS), tanked in 2018 following patterns of underfunding, faulty investment, and a collapsing stock market. These pension concerns led to widespread teacher protests, mimicking those that were occurring elsewhere in the United States at the time. Former Governor Matt Bevin’s attempts to address the problem resulted in significant losses for public sectors, including education. 

     According to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, school “formula” funding in Kentucky (SEEK program) was providing 13% less per student in 2019 than in 2008 (adjusting for inflation). These cuts rank fourth worst in the nation. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, Kentucky saw a decrease in formula funding (adjusted for inflation), the only one out of five states that experienced significant teacher protests. 

     Many of the policies that have allowed these funding cuts to continue were endorsed by former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her administration. Although she no longer holds the position, her legacy of increasing support for charter and private schools at the cost of public education continues to resonate with Republican legislatures across the country. Kentucky is no exception.

      Recently, this sentiment has been best exemplified through the increasing popularity of voucher programs in state legislatures. Each voucher bill has slight differences in verbiage, but all of them function in similar ways. 

      Voucher programs extend tax credits to families who send their children to private schools. In theory, this tax break intends to help families pay for private school by exempting them from paying the portion of their taxes that usually funds their local public schools. However, the income threshold to qualify for these tax breaks is often high. Critics argue that this high threshold excludes low-income families from benefiting. 

      In Kentucky, there is a similar piece of legislation circulating in the House of Representatives. The bill is called House Bill (HB) 149, and it outlines a plan for the creation of the “Education Opportunity Account Program,” which touts the same tax credits seen in most voucher bills. It has explicitly been stated that HB 149 is not a voucher, but it undeniably mimics voucher programs from other states. The qualifying income for the EOA program as detailed in HB 149 is approximately $121,000, reinforcing concerns regarding high income thresholds. The bill, if implemented, is set to divert approximately $8.6 billion away from public schools by 2040. 

Current Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear campaigned with the promise of increased funding for public education, but there have been obstacles in achieving that promise. HB 149 is the most recent manifestation of these obstacles.

     The Education Opportunity Account Program as detailed in HB 149 is modeled after a similar system in Florida. Florida has multiple voucher programs in place, and there is currently a Senate bill being proposed that would expand the use of public funds and decrease audits from every year to once every three years. 

     Dr. Karen Cheser, Superintendent of Fort Thomas Independent Schools (FTIS), is strongly opposed to HB 149 for a variety of reasons. Primarily, she is concerned about the bill’s fiscal impact on FTIS and the Commonwealth as a whole. Cheser explained that there is one pot of money, SEEK funding, that is allocated for all public schools in Kentucky and divided up between districts. With tax credits enacted for students who choose private school instead, the overall pot is set to shrink significantly.

     “We as a school district, just like every other school district, would be provided funding from [SEEK], but that funding would be less because there would be less in the pot. That would be overall bad for Fort Thomas Independent Schools, but we’re also intertwined and interrelated with all of the different school districts and all of our students. It would impact the entire state in a very negative way.”

     Further, a decrease in state funding requires public school districts to increase revenue from local taxpayers. This leaves little ability to fund extra amenities for engagement, such as extracurricular activities, field trips, professional development, and technology. 

     According to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, state funding nationally declined by $166 per student between 2008 and 2016, while local funding has grown by $161 per student. In Fort Thomas specifically, FTIS now receives approximately 10% less state funding than it did in 2008. On a broader scale, this means that more districts rely on local taxes to fund public schools, and less districts can accommodate the costs associated with extra amenities for students and staff. 

     This gap exacerbates pre-existing inequities within communities, as low-income areas remain low-income and the quality of the schools do not increase, while higher-income families can afford to send their children elsewhere. 

     Proponents of HB 149, and similar voucher programs across the country, argue that the tax credit gives families more choice in their childrens’ education. However, considering the income discrepancies apparent throughout the legislation, Cheser believes the aspect of choice is not a reality for all students. 

     “Typically, it’s the people who are already spending money on private school tuition that are the ones benefiting. Not the lower socioeconomic students. Not students who have disabilities. Not students [from] underrepresented populations. Many times they don’t have access to these schools.”

       There is no language in HB 149, or similar bills, protecting marginalized populations from discrimination based on factors such as disability status, religion, or having English as a first language. Some outstanding amendments proposed to the bill attempt to rectify these, including an amendment to allow homeless youth to participate and provide resources and accessibility for English language learners. However, these have not yet been approved by a vote.

      Voucher programs were first introduced following the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which desegregated public schools across the country. They allowed white parents to send their children to segregated private schools using public funds. Educators and administrators alike fear this history of inequity continues to permeate this type of bill. 

      Aside from the inequity presented by HB 149 and similar bills, there exists another concern for stakeholders: constitutionality. 

     In Section 189 of the Kentucky state Constitution, it specifies, “No portion of any fund or tax now existing, or that may hereafter be raised or levied for educational purposes, shall be appropriated to, or used by, or in aid of, any church, sectarian or denominational school.” This essentially means that public funds are barred from use for private schools. 

     HB 149 has 23 co-sponsors, including Rep. Joseph Fischer (R), who represents Kentucky’s 68th district. Fischer is a Fort Thomas native and an outspoken conservative. Fischer did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the bill or its progress. 

     The twin bill of HB 149, Senate Bill 25, has not gone as far in the Kentucky state Senate as HB 149 has in the House of Representatives. It is still in committee and has not been scheduled for a vote. Senator Wil Schroder (R), representing District 24, responded to a request for comment. Via email, he noted that he does not sit upon the committee which is reviewing the bill, and mentioned that he is “still doing research on it.”

     The weight of HB 149 invigorates educators in their advocacy for increased public education funding. Cheser believes now more than ever, it is important that public schools are financially supported by the Kentucky legislature. If there is long-term investment in public education, Cheser points out, the need for funding in other sectors, such as prison and healthcare, will shrink. 

     She said, “If you look short term, you might think, well we just don’t have money for education. But we’re hoping that our legislators look long term. In order to reduce that prison population, in order for people to be well, and to have better healthy habits, we feel that investing in education will impact those positively.”