Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
There is one sure thing going into the 2016 session of the Kentucky General Assembly: that there is no sure thing.
“With the ever-changing dynamics in the legislature, a new commissioner and a new governor, I have never had so many question marks beside a legislative session this close to the beginning,” KSBA Governmental Relations Director Hope McLaughlin observed a few weeks before lawmakers convened. “It’s very hard to predict what will move forward, if anything, in 2016.”
She said she does expect the session to be “interesting to watch,” because “the environment is so different than it has been over the past several years.”
There is a lot at stake in this session for public education, making it probably the most important session for public schools in some time. “Any budget session is important for public education, but with the increasing strain on the Commonwealth’s budget, it’s going to be especially important to talk about the value of public education and the value of local control, and why local control works so well for local districts,” McLaughlin said.
Public pension fixes will play a starring role in budget discussions, both for the Kentucky Retirement Systems and the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System. A KTRS task force has stepped back from making firm recommendations to lawmakers, instead presenting them with a menu of options.
KSBA’s position, McLaughlin said, is that all proposed solutions should be considered, but, “Our goal is to make sure that doesn’t negatively impact the appeal of going into the teaching force,” she said. “We are looking for something that’s going to put the system in a stable position for a long period of time. We don’t want to come back and revisit this in four years and we don’t want to keep revisiting it.”
The shoring up of KTRS will likely take the form of a funding plan to address the state’s actuarially required contribution and savings through structural changes in the system, she said.
KSBA’s board of directors has identified several other priorities in addition to a long-term solution to KTRS’ unfunded liability.
• An increase in SEEK transportation funding to 81 percent state-funded. The formula currently stands at 60 percent. This would cost $80 million for each fiscal year of the biennium.
• Additional funding for career and technical education, which McLaughlin is hopeful will materialize this session. “I think that career and technical education support is a very bipartisan topic and I think there is widespread interest in improving CTE resources across Kentucky,” she said. This also is a priority for the state Board of Education, which wants to use the added funds to support local area vocational centers, project-based learning, dual credit and debt service to upgrade career and technical education equipment. The agency is requesting $7.9 million per fiscal year.
• Increased access and availability to early childhood education for an additional 15,653 4-year-olds by increasing eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. This carries a price tag of $73 million per fiscal year, and is also backed by the state Board of Education.
• Funding to continue working toward more energy efficiency in public schools. The state Energy and Environment Cabinet’s proposed 2016-18 budget request contains $750,000 per fiscal year for the KSBA School Energy Managers Project, which has produced $68 million in savings and avoided costs over its six-year history.
• Support for local school board governance on the issue of setting the school year calendar. The issue has attracted more attention in this session than it has since the “Save our Summers” movement took off around 2007, and McLaughlin said she hopes school board members make their position known to their local lawmakers.
• Legislation to address the issue of pension spiking that eliminates abuses while protecting legitimate pay increases.
• More tools to close achievement gaps. As of mid-December, legislation along these lines had not been filed yet, “but this is such an important issue we wanted to make sure to put it on our priorities even though we didn’t have a specific proposal in front of us yet,” McLaughlin said. The caveat is that any measure aimed at closing gaps should not be an unfunded mandate, she added, and be flexible enough to allow districts to craft strategies to meet the specific needs of their students.
Several charter school bills are expected to be filed in this session, as they have been in the past, but the issue will likely gain more traction this time with proponent Gov. Matt Bevin giving the issue high visibility. KSBA’s goal in the debate is to maintain local control and to preserve funding for public schools, points that new Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt has also made.
The fate of many of these public education issues may be influenced by the overriding focus on the state budget, which tends to act as a black hole for other legislation.
“There are a lot of things that are talked about before a budget session starts and then whenever the black cloud of budget negotiations enters the room a lot of things that were once thought to be promising sort of die away,” McLaughlin noted. “And that’s not directed at any specific bill – it’s just a general observation about what there is time to do in a budget session.”