This week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would eliminate barriers to educational opportunities for Kentucky children, no matter their economic status or where they live. The bill, HB 563, contains two major provisions as well as funding for full-day kindergarten across the state.

First, it provides parents and guardians a historic opportunity to choose which public school system best meets the needs of their child. This legislation signals a historic shift in our state’s approach to education and provides parents an opportunity to meet their child’s educational needs.

Under the provisions of HB 563, public school districts would be required to develop a plan for accepting non-district students and allow SEEK funds to follow a student to other public school districts. State-funded per pupil monies through the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) program would follow a student to any eligible public school district. As it stands today, the per pupil funding for a student who resides in one district but attends school in a different district is allocated to the district where they reside. This is an obstacle to many families who want to go out of district to access programs or services that are not available in their own.

The second major shift incorporated in HB 563 seeks to provide eligible families with financial assistance to access tools and resources to improve their child’s education. To do so, the bill calls for the creation of Education Opportunity Accounts (EOA). These accounts would enable eligible families to receive financial assistance. Accounts would be operated by a nonprofit account granting organization which would receive and distribute financial donations based on needs-based eligibility criteria. Those who make an EOA donation would be eligible to receive a tax credit of up to 95% of their total donation up to $1 million. The credit itself is capped at $25 million per fiscal year.

EOAs will apply to rural, urban and suburban students and will benefit students from all backgrounds. EOA funds could be used to pay for tuition at public school districts across the state and private schools in counties with a population of more than 150,000 people.

While tuition is a valuable tool, I am equally excited that the funds can be used for other education-related services, including online learning programs, tutoring services, textbooks, dual-credit options, transportation to and from school.

While we recognize that school choice already exists in Kentucky, it is only an option for the families that can afford to move to another school district or enroll their child in another district. HB 563 will provide this opportunity and choice for all families who qualify.

As with many things, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified calls for changing how Kentucky approaches the education of our children, specifically for providing more parental choice. Despite CDC guidance, schools have remained closed to in-person learning and failing grades soar across the Commonwealth. Many of the state’s 647,000 students have limited access to the educational opportunities they need to achieve their potential. However, prior to the pandemic the one-size-fits-all approach of our system of normal schools had proven difficult for some families to navigate and produced lackluster results despite billions in state budget investments.

While this is new to our state, similar legislation is in place across our nation, including our neighboring states. Real results in states like Florida provide evidence that school choice results in better performance of both students and public schools. In Florida, opportunities for school choice led to major statistical improvements in both math and reading scores, despite spending more than $1,700 per pupil less.

By passing this legislation, we reassert one of our main priorities, putting Kentucky children and their families first. We owe children and their families every opportunity to engage in deciding where they go to school and how that education will be enhanced with tutoring, therapy, advanced placement testing, and other resources.

A recent poll by Washington-based polling firm CYGNAL shows that 77% of likely rural voters support educational choice and 57% of likely rural voters support both public schools and educational choice. Support is similarly strong when you combine all areas of the state, where 65% of likely voters support choice and across party lines with 69% of Independents, 56% of Democrats, and 67% of Republicans favorable to school choice.

As we close in on the final days of the 2021 legislative session, I continue to remain committed to our goal of making Kentucky the best state to live, work and raise a family in. If you are needing assistance or have any questions, I can be reached during the week from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. (EST) through the toll-free message line at 1-800-372-7181. You can also contact me via e-mail at Richard.Heath@lrc.ky.gov. You can keep track of committee meetings and potential legislation through the Kentucky Legislature Home Page at legislature.ky.gov and you can also follow me on Twitter @Richard_HeathKY.