March 16 was a great day for Kentucky parents and students. The Kentucky General Assembly passed its first-ever educational choice law that would include both public and non-public school students.
House Bill 563 includes two provisions that will dramatically shift education policy so that it focuses more on the individual needs of students as opposed to the school that they happen to attend.
The first half of HB 563 deals with open enrollment in public schools. In other words, it will give parents more freedom to switch between different public school districts. The second half of HB 563 would create an Education Opportunity Account program.
EOAs provide need-based assistance to families to help cover education-related expenses for public and non-public school students. EOAs could cover tutoring services, therapies for students with special needs, career and technical training, dual-credit college courses and much more.
For students residing in counties with a population over 90,000 people, EOA’s could also cover the cost of tuition at a K-12 non-public school, including Catholic schools. This would include the counties of Boone, Kenton, Campbell, Jefferson, Fayette, Warren, Hardin and Daviess.
While this is a significant victory, there were compromises along the way. As referenced above, the tuition assistance portion of the bill is limited to Kentucky’s larger counties. A vote was held to make tuition assistance available statewide, but it narrowly failed to win a majority of the Kentucky House of Representatives.
A middle ground was reached between the House and Senate whereby the tuition assistance portion of the bill would focus on larger counties. The coalition supporting EOAs would have preferred a larger statewide program.
Nevertheless, HB 563 is still a significant first step for Kentucky on the road to educational choice for all. It will help thousands of students across the Commonwealth reach their potential and opens the door for a more inclusive program in the near future.
The coalition that backed HB 563 is diverse and includes people of many faiths and backgrounds. However, Catholic education played a major role in the debates on the bill and the final vote.
The night started out with a passionate speech by Sen. Wil Schroder (R-Wilder) about the many false narratives and myths surrounding HB 563. He emphasized the important role that Catholic schools play in helping low-income families in Northern Kentucky. This included sharing family stories from Holy Trinity in Bellevue, where a majority of the students come from families who qualify for free and reduced lunch.
The most dramatic moment of the night came when the Kentucky House of Representatives voted for final passage of HB 563. The vote was tight and ended at 48-47. Rep. Al Gentry (D-Louisville) provided the tie-breaking vote to put HB 563 over the top. Rep. Gentry was the lone Democratic vote for the bill. In explaining his vote he acknowledged that while difficult, he voted “Yes” for the many lower-income families in his district who want to provide their children with a Catholic education.
While we have come a long way, this is not the end. Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed HB 563 yesterday, March 24. But the General Assembly will have an opportunity to override his veto with a majority vote of each chamber on March 29 and 30. Please take a moment this week to call 1-800-372-7181 and ask your state representative and senator to vote in favor of HB 563 in the event that a veto override is necessary.
Andrew Vandiver is the associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.