Lawmakers say 'school choice' plan will come if amendment passes

A measure on the ballot this fall will ask voters if they support amending the state constitution to allow lawmakers to “provide financial support” for students who attend private schools.

Owensboro area legislators Sen. Gary Boswell and Rep. DJ Johnson, who are in support of the constitutional amendment, say the measure will let lawmakers explore ways to provide funding to students at schools outside the public school system.

But Rep. Scott Lewis, who opposed the bill calling for the constitutional amendment, said he has concerns about how the state would come up with the money.

The constitutional amendment says: “To give parents choices in educational opportunities for their children, are you in favor of enabling the General Assembly to provide financial support for the education costs of students in kindergarten through 12th grade who are outside the system of common (public) schools by amending the Constitution?”

The ballot will also contain a proposed new provision to the constitution that says: “The General Assembly may provide financial support for the education of students outside the system of common schools,” and says legislators can do so regardless of previous sections in the constitution that barred such action. For example, Section 189 of the Constitution prohibits use of state education dollars for “any church, sectarian or denominational school.”

Last December, a legislative funding mechanism to provide public funds for students to attend private schools was ruled unconstitutional by a judge in Franklin County.

The bill that carried the constitutional amendment during this year’s legislative session was House Bill 2. The bill’s primary sponsor was Rep. Suzanne Miles, an Owensboro Republican and member of the GOP’s leadership in the Republican-controlled House.

Miles did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Boswell, an Owensboro Republican, said lawmakers do not have a plan for how they will provide funds to private schools students if the constitutional amendment is approved.

“There’s no plan as to how it will come about,” Boswell said. The constitutional amendment “only answers one question: Do people have a right to choose where (their children) go to school?’ ” Boswell said.

“Obviously, if the school choice amendment passes, the decision (on the funding) will be up to the legislature and the governor,” Boswell said.

Lewis, a Hartford Republican and former public school administrator who represents part of Daviess County, said he was one of a few Republicans in the House who voted against House Bill 2.

“We have school choice now,” Lewis said, and that parents “send kids anywhere they want to go” for school.

“But the tax dollars don’t follow them,” Lewis said.

Johnson, an Owensboro Republican and one of House Bill 2’s co-sponsors, said people have misconceptions about the constitutional amendment.

“It does not create any program,” Johnson said. “It does not authorize charter schools or create vouchers.”

Johnson, an instructor at Grace Christian Academy in Owensboro, said the amendment asks if people want to empower lawmakers to provide education options for families.

“There are a lot of places doing amazing things in education,” Johnson said, and that, “we should be able to pick and choose what would be good for the state, and without the constitutional amendment, we can’t do that.”

Lewis said a concern is that lawmakers will have to allocate with the funds from somewhere to help students pay for private schools.

“Where is that money going to come from?” Lewis said.

When asked if the funds would come out of public education dollars, Lewis said, “it’s either that, or set aside another pot of money.”

If money is allocated for non-public schools, “I don’t know where the money comes from,” he said. While the state has a budget reserve now, that might not always be the case, Lewis said.

“I know, at times (public education) didn’t have the money we needed,” Lewis said, although he said the GOP has done a good job of funding public schools.

“I have to give my party credit. We have increased funding for education,” Lewis said.

When asked if people could understand what they were voting on if a mechanism to providing state funds for private schools doesn’t exist, Johnson said, “I think they know what they are voting on: They are voting on the opportunity consider some mechanism.

“But if we never have the flexibility to do that, we’ll never know what we want,” Johnson said.

If the constitutional amendment is approved this fall, Johnson said there might be some modest work on the issue in the 2025 legislative session.

Johnson said his opinion was a major plan from legislators to provide funding, for students to attend private schools, would have to wait until 2026 — the next state budget session.

Boswell said a future funding plan will have support.

“I don’t think it will be a party line vote,” Boswell said.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment, Boswell said, are “giving parents the right to choose where their kids go to school.”

Lewis said some private or religious schools might not want public dollars, if that requires them to follow state education rules.

In December, the Associated Press reported Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd called the legislature’s plan to fund private schools “at attempt to ... establish a separate class of publicly funded but privately controlled schools that have unique autonomy in management and operation.”

The AP quoted Shepherd as saying the funding plan would have created a “separate and unequal system of charter schools.”

Shepherd ruled the plan unconstitutional.

Lewis said there were still a lot of unknowns.

“We don’t know if it (the amendment) will pass, and we don’t know what (the funding plan) will look like, so it’s hard to comment,” Lewis said.