LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky's school superintendents held a media blitz Monday to oppose a bill in the state legislature that they say will strip millions of dollars from public education and could trigger another classroom walkout by anxious teachers.
House bill 205 would grant tax credits to people who donate to scholarship funds for special-needs children and those in foster care or low- to middle-income homes who attend private schools.
An analysis by the Legislative Research Commission estimates the bill could cost taxpayers $7 million in the budget year ending June 30. By 2025, the bill could result in $209 million less for the state's general fund, which pays for public education and many other state services.
"This is not opposition to school choice," Woodford County Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins said. "This is, however, an argument that our schools are woefully underfunded and this takes away from the needed funds that are necessary for our school districts to do what we need to do for our students."
The bill comes amid a renewed surge of activism among public school teachers across the country to oppose proposed bills, mostly in Republican-dominated states.
Last week, six Kentucky school districts — including the two largest systems — were forced to close after hundreds of teachers called in sick to oppose a bill that would change how the state's pension fund is managed. That action came a month after similar protests in West Virginia over a complex education bill that included a provision to create charter schools.
An online post by the grassroots teacher advocacy group Ky 120 United said educators are "prepared to strike" if lawmakers pass scholarship tax credits for private schools. Monday, dozens of superintendents held news conferences in Lexington, Shelbyville, Bowling Green and Owensboro to oppose House bill 205. But they urged teachers not to call in sick to protest if the bill is brought before a committee hearing Tuesday.
"It's important for us to be in school right now to continue to do what's right for our students every day," Hawkins said.
Kentucky lawmakers have just eight legislative days left to pass bills this year. But the proposal is sponsored by House Majority Floor Leader John "Bam" Carney, Majority Whip Chad McCoy and GOP House Speaker David Osborne.
Carney's support is particularly important. He controls which bills are called to the House floor for a vote.
"It's a tax credit that will allow opportunities for families to have choice to decide what best educational opportunities" serve their children, Carney said. "I would expect superintendents to oppose every tax credit in Kentucky if that's going to be their stance."
The bill would offer a tax credit worth either 95 percent of the total contribution or $1 million, whichever is less. The credit would be capped at $25 million each year. But if at least 90 percent of the tax credits were awarded, the cap would automatically increase by 25 percent the next year.
The credits would end in 2024 unless the legislature votes to extend them. An analysis by the Legislative Research Commission found the bill could cost taxpayers as much as $50 million by 2023.
It's possible the bill would cause some students attending public schools to move to a private school. If that happens, public school districts would lose money because state funding is tied to attendance. The commission's analysis could not predict how much that could cost school districts.
Education funding and pensions for teachers have been volatile issues in the Republican-controlled state legislature the past two years. Last year, the GOP majority passed a sales tax increase to boost per pupil funding for K-12 education. But lawmakers also passed an overhaul of the teachers' retirement system that prompted thousands of teachers to protest at the Capitol. The bill was eventually struck down by the state Supreme Court.
Last week, the legislature gave final approval to a school safety bill that urges districts to put police officers in every school. Monday, some superintendents criticized the lawmakers for not providing funding for the safety measures.
Carney told reporters on Monday the superintendents might have overplayed their hand.
"I'd say the superintendents will be lucky to get anything else this session," he said.