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Amend education bill, get kids back to school

The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being published by newspapers statewide.

Kentucky legislators should mirror President Joe Biden’s determination to reopen public schools and get kids back into classrooms.

They should not be wasting effort on legislation encouraging local districts to bow to pressure from teachers’ unions to keep public school doors locked while continuing the increasingly unpopular online fiasco known as nontraditional instruction (NTI).

House Bill 208 (HB 208) recently passed by the House Education Committee is an example of such poor legislation.

This bill allows school districts to receive Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) funds – the state portion of funding for each public school student – based on attendance figures from as far back as the 2018-19 academic year even though thousands of students in these districts haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since March due to Gov. Andy Beshear’s unending stream of executive orders related to COVID-19.

Also, while districts are supposed to measure students’ participation in NTI programs, they have little clue regarding how many increasingly frustrated families have chosen to remove children altogether from public schools and continue their education in private or home schools.

HB 208 also weakens the impact of Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) passed by the General Assembly in January requiring legislative approval for governors’ emergency executive orders – including shutting down schools – to extend longer than 30 days.

Even if the House passes this bad legislation, would state senators really want to step on their top legislative priority, not to mention all the angry calls they would likely receive from parents wanting their kids back in school?

With COVID case numbers decreasing, vaccinations increasing, the Centers for Disease Control saying schools can open safely by practicing social distancing and masking and even a highly liberal president calling for schools to open five days a week, why did the state House Education Committee pass legislation allowing school districts to further skirt the law and remain closed indefinitely?

Backers of the bill argue it’s needed so that districts have the authority to take emergency action in case new COVID strains develop while the legislature isn’t in session and thus unable to approve emergency actions as required by the newly passed SB 1.

But should superintendents be allowed to override state law, including Kentucky Revised Statute 158.070 mandating students receive at least 1,062 hours of instructional time “on not less than one hundred seventy (170) student attendance days,” with “student attendance days” defined as “any day that students are scheduled to be at school to receive instruction, …”?

“At school” doesn’t mean being mired in online programs of disturbingly unknown value and, even worse, which aren't serving thousands of Kentucky youngsters who haven’t received any real education for months – or some, especially the most at-risk kids, for nearly a year.

The only way HB 208 is legal and acceptable policy is with the adoption of amendments introduced by Rep. Felicia Rabourn, R-Turners Station, requiring SEEK funding be based on student attendance data from current school years and that districts provide in-person instruction beginning in March for families who want that option.

With passage of SB 1 and the ensuing override of Beshear’s expected veto, local school districts will no longer be able to close their doors indefinitely, provided Kentucky courts don’t try to step into the legislature’s lane and allow Beshear to continue indeterminately suspending statutes, which would please the teachers’ unions yet needlessly vex parents and students.

If SB 1 is struck down and HB 208 passes the General Assembly without Rabourn’s amendment requiring districts to offer an in-person option, what incentives will local education bureaucrats, teachers’ union bosses and their bought-and-paid-for board members ever have to get off the dime and get kids back in school?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

Update: Since this column was released to newspapers, House Bill 208 passed the Kentucky House of Representatives in a modified form that makes the provisions of the bill only apply to the 2020-21 school year and with a floor amendment requiring school districts to offer in-person instruction a minimum of 40% of the time beginning March 29, 2021.

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