KSBA eNews Service, Frankfort, Feb. 8, 2017
KDE legal chief: General Assembly would have to address law on nonresident agreements, constitutional issues
by Brad Hughes
Gov. Matt Bevin’s top appointee on education issues formally asked the Kentucky Board of Education Wednesday to consider moving the state to an “open enrollment” system where by students could attend school wherever they wish to access options not available in the districts where they live.
Speaking at the KBE’s meeting in Frankfort, Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner said 19 other states have such systems to the benefit of students and their families.
“We have many, many uncommonly good schools that have really moved the ball forward. I’ve gone into technology centers and almost every course there is dual credit, applying toward an associate’s degree,” Heiner said.
“(But) I go to another county and talk to the parents who say, ‘My student is all about musical ability, but our school doesn’t have an orchestra, (another school does) but our superintendents can’t get their agreements together.’ The economy has changed in the last 20 years and increased specialization of schools is the response to that. It’s a special challenge for small districts to be everything to every student.”
Heiner, who promoted issues of school choice when he ran against Bevin in the 2015 GOP gubernatorial primary, said he was caught off guard by the attention his proposal has received (initially reported by the eNews Service Feb. 3).
“There’s been some reaction that caught me by surprise. I didn’t think this would capture much attention. It did. Much of it has been positive,” the secretary said. “I think there is a significant percentage – it will be small, let’s say less than 2 percent, 12,000 students – for whom it would be life-changing here in Kentucky.
“I’m thankful that you jumped on the charter (school issue), and brought in experts and had great discussion on that. I ask you to read (written report Heiner produced for the meeting) and give this topic the same level of consideration you gave the charter topic,” he said.
KBE member Gary Houchens, a Bevin appointee who has been outspoken in favor of various school choice initiatives, said he, too, had been hearing reactions to the proposal.
“I’ve been hearing from superintendents and parents – prior to your plan to present this to us – of their enthusiastic support for this idea. Of course, I realize there will be those who will be opposed to it as well, but I think the thing that we need to keep in mind is that our state education tax dollars are allocated for the benefit of students and not for the financial operations of specific institutions,” Houchens said.
But KBE member Grayson Boyd, a retired educator from Paintsville and appointee of former Gov. Steve Beshear, questioned the need for Heiner’s proposal.
“Is there a problem? I know in our area just about all of the school systems sign (nonresident agreement contracts), so kids are free already to go from one system to another,” he said. “When I was DPP, all the surrounding districts had agreements that said, ‘any and all (students),’ so there was no limitation put on it. This is already happening in a lot of areas of the state.”
Heiner countered that many such agreements require families of nonresident students to pay tuition.
“It’s great if you’re in that top 30 percent (family income) if you can pay several thousands of dollars, but these are public schools and we need to find a way so that it is available to the kids who don’t have the resources to pay that,” he said.
When a question was raised about whether the state board could unilaterally act on the subject, KBE Associate Commissioner and General Counsel Kevin Brown explained that it could not.
“It does in fact require a statutory change. A statute now permits school districts to enter into nonresident agreements,” said Brown. “There also are some constitutional implications. (The constitution requires) an efficient system of common schools and how those monies are allocated. Those issues would have to be addressed by the General Assembly.
At the end of the discussion, no action was taken. More than one KBE member suggested that the issue be placed on the agenda for a future meeting, but no vote occurred on that, either.