Senate leader says Kentucky ballot issue should settle school-choice dispute.

The state Senate's senior Republican leader said Tuesday that a November ballot issue might end Kentucky's long-running political spat over government funding for private or charter schools “once and for all”.  

One of the most acrimonious disputes of the legislative session that ended Monday will continue into the fall. Kentuckians will vote on the GOP-backed school choice constitutional amendment on the general election ballot. If voters ratify it, lawmakers can determine whether to fund private or charter schools with taxpayer cash after years of political and legal wrangling.  

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said, “I think it would answer the question once and for all.” This was in response to whether school choice campaigns will continue. “And I know that several people voted for the school choice amendment to settle that question — what do the people of Kentucky want?” he said Tuesday at a news conference.  

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said “public dollars should only go to public schools, period.” He will “work every day” to defeat the ballot issue. Beshear and the Kentucky Education Association, which represents tens of thousands of public school teachers, will oppose the legislation.  

Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said Tuesday he will vocally support the ballot issue. He predicted well-funded opponents but believed supporters will be able to persuade voters. Thayer added, “We think that there are going to be groups coming into Kentucky, and groups from Kentucky who are going to be investing heavily in media and the grassroots to pass” the ballot initiative.  

The constitutional amendment drive followed court judgments that declared tax monies must be spent on the state's “common” schools, meaning public schools, and not charter or private schools. Legislative debates and Tuesday showed potential campaign topics.  

Democratic state Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson said Tuesday that rural Kentucky, where public schools are major employment, will be severely hurt if the ballot initiative passes. “We need to respond loud and clear in November that public taxpayer dollars do not belong in private schools,” she told a news conference.  

Thayer said last month in the Senate debate that low- and middle-income parents whose children are “trapped in bad schools” would benefit most from school choice. Republican efforts to extend school choice were thwarted by judicial challenges, forcing the state constitution amendment.  

Kentucky's Supreme Court overturned a GOP-passed tax credit for private school tuition donations in 2022. A circuit court judge rejected another charter school funding plan last year. Tuesday, Stivers suggested the two child education systems can coexist.

Senate president: “I believe that the two – charter schools and public education – can live together and actually thrive together. Lawmakers' two-year spending package will increase SEEK per-pupil funding by more than 9% for public K-12 schools. The spending plan will give poorer school districts additional state funds to equalize finances. School districts receive more state transportation funding.  

Stevenson criticized GOP lawmakers for not supporting an across-the-board wage boost for teachers and school workers and not incorporating Beshear's proposal to provide preschool for all 4-year-olds in Kentucky. The governor suggested an 11% wage hike for teachers and other public school personnel. The GOP-passed budget left pay rises to local school boards, but members believed state financing would allow districts to raise wages.  

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