Kentucky House boosts school spending but leaves out guaranteed teacher raises and universal pre-K

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Republican-led Kentucky House endorsed higher spending for education in its two-year state spending plan on Thursday but left out two of the Democratic governor’s top priorities — guaranteed pay raises for teachers and access to preschool for every 4-year-old.

The budget measure, which won 77-19 House passage after hours of debate, would pump large sums of additional money into K-12 schools. In a key policy decision, the GOP bill leaves it up to local school districts to decide teacher pay but encourages school administrators to award raises to teachers and other personnel. Each district would decide the amount of raises.

The House version has no funding for the governor’s ambitious universal pre-K proposal. The executive branch budget bill — the state’s main policy document — now heads to the GOP-dominated Senate.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear called for a guaranteed 11% pay raise for teachers and all other public school employees in the spending blueprint he submitted to lawmakers. He says it’s needed to recruit and retain teachers. He proposed spending $172 million in each of the next two fiscal years to provide preschool for every Kentucky 4-year-old. The goal would be to make every child ready for kindergarten.

Rep. Derrick Graham, the top-ranking House Democrat, said during the long House debate that the GOP plan came up short for K-12 teachers at a time of massive state budget reserves. He pointed to Kentucky’s rankings near the bottom nationally in average teacher starting pay and average teacher pay.

“This budget will not begin to make a dent in our low state ranking,” Graham said.

Republican Rep. Jason Petrie said the budget plan reflects a policy decision showing a “fidelity to local control, so that the state is not setting the pay scale.”

Petrie, who chairs the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, staunchly defended the level of state support for public schools in the House bill. He said it would deliver more than $1.3 billion in funding increases for K-12 education in the biennium. “It is well supported,” he said.

Beshear proposed more than $2.5 billion of additional funding for public education in his proposal.

Throughout the debate, House Democrats highlighted what they saw as shortcomings in the GOP spending plan, citing water projects and affordable housing initiatives as examples.

Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher called it a responsible budget and offered a spirited response to the Democratic criticism.

“They just say, ‘spend, spend, spend, spend,’” Bratcher said. “And that’s dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.”

Much of the House debate focused on education funding — always a cornerstone of the state budget.

The House plan would bolster per-pupil funding under SEEK, the state’s main funding formula for K-12 schools. The amount would go to $4,368 — a $117 million increase — in the first fiscal year and $4,455 in the second year — a $154 million increase. The current amount is $4,200 per student.

The House’s budget plan offered another sweetener for school districts. It would increase state spending to transport K-12 students to and from school, with the state covering 100% of those costs in the second year of the biennium. Beshear called for the state to fully fund those costs in both years. In the House plan, the state would cover 80% of those costs in the first year of the two-year cycle, which begins July 1.

Republican leaders have said the House plan makes sizeable investments in mental health and substance abuse recovery programs. It includes funding to hire 100 more social workers and to award pay raises to state police troopers and commercial vehicle enforcement officers. It calls for an additional $196 million in funding for the College Access Program, a needs-based grant initiative for Kentucky undergraduate students.

Crafting the budget is the top priority for lawmakers during this year’s 60-day session, and the House action was another step in that process. The focus now shifts to the Senate, which will put its imprint on the two-year spending plan. The final version will ultimately be hashed out by a conference committee made up of House and Senate leaders. Both chambers have Republican supermajorities.

In other action Thursday, the House passed a separate spending bill that taps into the state’s massive budget reserves to make a number of one-time investments. Nearly $1 billion would be used to further pay down the state’s pension liabilities. Other allocations would go to support infrastructure and economic development. The measure cleared the House 96-0 to advance to the Senate.

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