Protestors gather on the Capitol steps in Frankfort in April. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

With educators watching closely as a growing political force, Kentucky lawmakers will likely tackle several items impacting education in the 2019 legislative session.

Requests topping legislative wish lists from education and business councils include charter school funding, a solution to Kentucky’s pension shortfall and greater power for district superintendents.

Lawmakers, including a few fresh faces elected in an education-fueled midterm, convene in Frankfort on Jan. 8. Here are eight topics to watch.

Pension reform at last?

Pension reform will likely continue to be at the forefront of political discussion after a hastily called, whirlwind 24-hour special session ended without a bill being passed in late December.

But what exactly that reform will look like is unclear. Unseen substitute bills mentioned in a House committee meeting during the special session seemed to be similar to the pension bill passed at the tail end of the 2018 session. That bill was ultimately struck down on procedural grounds.

In remarks before ending the special session, House Speaker-Designate David Osborne said representatives had “vast differences” of opinion on the bills.

A funding mechanism for charters (or no charters at all)

A long-term funding mechanism for charter schools is considered to be one of the final hurdles to materializing the school type in Kentucky.

If charter advocates, including Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, have their way, that mechanism could pass this session.

Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis talks to reporters. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

The mechanism pitched by Lewis would allow taxpayer money collected for schools, including state and local dollars, to follow a student to any public school they choose, either traditional or charter.

Kentucky allowed charter schools to operate in the state in 2017, but lawmakers haven’t passed long-term funding for the schools. Without long-term funding, it is difficult to craft a reliable budget to pitch to an authorizer or to operate at all.

But opponents are also taking aim at charters. At least one bill was prefiled to repeal Kentucky’s charter law.

Also, scholarship tax credits

Scholarship tax credits, which are typically opposed in the same sentence as charter schools, are another education topic to watch in 2019.

Generally, these allow those who donate to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships to receive a tax credit on that donation.

Proponents argue credits will bolster donations, making more scholarships available to low-income families, giving them more options for schools. But those scholarships may not always cover the full cost of private schools, opponents say, leaving poor families scrambling to make up the difference.

Credits are not the same as vouchers, in which the government gives money to a family to use at a private school. However, critics typically oppose both, arguing they pull money from traditional public schools.  

Jefferson County Public Schools’ legislative agenda specifically opposes both credits and vouchers.

More super(intendent) powers

A variety of legislative requests boil down to giving superintendents more power over their districts, including the ability to hire principals and make daily decisions.

The Kentucky Department of Education, Kentucky School Boards Association and Greater Louisville Inc. all support moving principal hirings away to the superintendent. School-based decision-making councils, which include a mix of school administrators, teachers and parents, would likely still act in an advisory role to the decision.

Local school board power could also be reduced — or board members could be unburdened from approving day-to-day decisions, depending on whom you ask. Legislation moving power over smaller decisions, presumably items that would be passed in a consent calendar, from boards to district heads is possible.

The JCPS board meets following a closed session to discuss a potential settlement offer with the state. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Other changes to how school boards operate are possible, too. GLI’s legislative agenda outlines multiple requests, including adding at-large members to “ensure the concerns of the district as a whole are adequately represented” and establishing unspecified requirements to serve as a board member.  

Some education watchers are looking at changes to SBDMs, too. One ask from KDE: Add more parents to the councils. Currently, there are more teachers than parents on the councils, but KDE would like to see parents have at least the same number of seats.

Early childhood funding (or just funding in general)

One thing on which nearly every group agrees? Kentucky needs more funding for early childhood programs.  

Kentucky ranks 41st out of all states in preschool enrollment, according to a recent report from the Prichard Committee, a nonpartisan education advocacy group. Not attending preschool could lead to not being ready for kindergarten, potentially putting the youngest learners behind almost immediately.

Providing funds for more early childhood programs could help change that. However, new funding is unlikely this session as it isn’t a budget year. Any new appropriations would require a supermajority vote of at least 60 votes in the House.

But some are still watching for bumps in funding for schools, family resource centers and transportation.

Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Hal Heiner talks to media on Aug. 2. | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Third grade reading checks

Speaking of early learning — KDE wants to see legislation that will allow students to be held back if they cannot read at grade level in third grade.

Per the department’s legislative agenda, KDE wants a “retention threshold” for third-graders not reading at a certain level, plus additional intervention options. The agenda also asks for extra help for students struggling in reading and math from kindergarten to third grade.

The state Board of Education Chairman Hal Heiner has advocated for similar policies in the past, but the retention idea has been criticized as a path to future dropouts.

Sixteen states have similar third grade retention policies.

School safety measures

A year after a deadly school shooting in Kentucky, lawmakers are expected to consider some kind of legislation focused on school safety.

Both KSBA and JCPS labeled school safety as a priority in their legislative agenda.

KSBA asks for a comprehensive bill to “harden our buildings and soften our schools,” but doesn’t make specific requests. JCPS asks to focus on increasing funding for mental health services and trauma-informed care.

JCPS also asks for retired police officers to be able to work for school districts without hurting their pension. If such legislation passes, it could help the district find enough security officers for its schools if it moves away from the student resource officer model and brings safety efforts in-house next year.

Ensuring effective teachers through tribunal changes

Another thing the majority of organizations in the state agree on: Changes to how administrative hearings against teachers are handled are necessary.

KDE, JCPS, KSBA and others all ask lawmakers to reform the tribunal system in their legislative agendas.

An ideal system would ensure an effective teacher in every classroom, but would still respect teachers’ due process rights while being timely, the agendas say.

Additionally, JCPS asks that the tribunal reflects the racial and ethnic composition of an employee’s district.