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Kentucky lawmakers seek to expand blocked private school scholarship program

Kentucky state Sen. Ralph Alvarado
Gage Skidmore
Kentucky state Sen. Ralph Alvarado

Kentucky lawmakers are filing bills to expand a tax-credit scholarship program recently declared unconstitutional. 

The program, also known as Education Opportunity Accounts, would have allowed individuals and corporations to receive a tax credit of up to 97% for donations to a scholarship fund. Low- and middle-income families could apply to use those funds for private school tuition in the state’s most populous counties.

Lawmakers passed the program in 2021, but it never got off the ground. A Franklin County judge struck down the program in October for running afoul of a provision in the state constitution that prevents the collection of tax dollars for private schools. 

Private school advocates are appealing that decision. They’re asking the state Supreme Court to hear the case.

Even though the tax-credit scholarship program is blocked, bills from Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado and Republican Rep. Josh Calloway seek to expand it. 

According to drafts obtained by WFPL News, the bills would raise the income cap for eligible families and extend eligibility across the state. The original program only allowed students to use the funds for private school tuition if they lived in counties with populations larger than 90,000 people.

“Instead of only helping students in the most populous counties, this bill gives students in every part of our state the chance to pick the right school, public or nonpublic,” Alvarado said during a press conference Thursday morning.

Parent Desirae Caudill joined lawmakers and private school advocates to express her support for the legislation. Caudill said she moved her children to private school due to the “uncertainty of COVID-19.” Because she lives in Madison County, Caudill said she would not be eligible for the current scholarship program, even if it weren’t blocked by a judge.

“Unfortunately the cost of a new school has left me too often choosing between paying bills and paying tuition,” she said.

The new proposals would also allow the program’s funding to grow substantially. Alvarado’s legislation would allow the current $25 million program to increase 25% each year, up to $50 million a year. Calloway’s bill, in the House, would allow the program to grow to $100 million a year.

Each proposal would allow families with higher incomes to be eligible. The program lawmakers passed in 2021 allowed families earning 175% of the reduced-price meal threshold to be eligible: about $85,793 a year for a family of four.

Alvarado’s bill increases the threshold to 200% of the reduced-price meal threshold, or about $98,000 for a family of four. Calloway’s bill increases the eligibility to 250% of the reduced-price meal threshold, or about $122,562 for a family of four.

“We know right now with inflation, costs are higher. It’s more difficult for families right now,” Alvarado said.

Lawmakers said they planned to file their legislation Thursday.

Many advocates for public education oppose the tax-credit scholarship program because they say it drains funds from cash-strapped public schools, and worry it would create a system of haves and have nots.

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered, Here & Now from WBUR, and NPR's Weekend Edition.
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