GOP gubernatorial hopeful James Comer suggests tax breaks for college grads who stay in-state

04/16/2015 04:16 PM

LEXINGTON — Republican gubernatorial candidate James Comer unveiled Thursday his campaign’s plan to drastically slash university tuition prices through tax credits for Kentuckians who earn their degrees and begin their careers in-state.

Four-year undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville each cost more than $40,000 in tuition. Under Comer’s plan, in-state students would pay full tuition at the state’s two flagship institutions but earn tax credits that would cut those costs to $20,000 as long as they graduate within four years and find work in Kentucky.

Those attending regional universities, such as Western Kentucky University and Morehead State University, would earn credits reducing their tuition to $15,000 under the same parameters.

In-state students who graduate from a state community college in three years and within eight years of graduating high school will have their tuition fully covered through tax credits if they find in-state employment.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel, Comer’s running mate, said graduates can expect to receive the credits within five years if the plan is enacted. Funding will come largely through savings realized by universities as students work to obtain their degrees — and tax credits — within four years, he said.

“As I travel the state I talk about the brain drain problem we have where we educate our best and brightest students in Kentucky,” said Comer, the state agriculture commissioner. “Once they graduate college in Kentucky they have to move to other states because there are more opportunities in those other states.”

Brigitte Ramsey, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee, a Lexington-based academic advocacy group, said the organization generally supports a number of focal points in the plan, but she declined to comment on specifics of the proposal.

“We’re pleased that the Comer campaign is focusing on education as a key platform,” she said in a phone interview. “Based on what’s been released publicly, we think the plan touches on key issues that are important to the Prichard Committee, namely affordability, access, funding and quality, but we’ll wait for more details before we fully evaluate the plan.”

Comer’s plan also calls for a $2,000-per-employee tax credit for employers who hired Kentucky Community and Technical College System graduates for at least two years. Administrative staff cuts totaling 10 percent at KCTCS, achieved through attrition, would provide $13 million per year to grant performance bonuses for middle and high school teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes under the proposal.

“We will apply the bonuses based off of student achievement assessments to ensure that the taxpayers of the commonwealth are getting the maximum return for their investment,” McDaniel said.

But performance-based bonuses may tempt teachers to cheat on standardized tests.

Just Tuesday, 10 Atlanta teachers and administrators were sentenced in a wide-ranging cheating scandal where teachers provided test answers or changed incorrect responses to improve standardized test scores.

Eight were handed jail time of one to seven years, and part of the investigation revealed the teachers in question were offered bonuses for high scores and threatened with termination for low marks, according to a report by The Washington Post.

Ramsey said Comer’s proposal for incentive-based pay merited further review, “but we’re certainly interested in increasing the quality in the classroom.”

“The details of how we get that accomplished, especially via compensation, is probably something we’d want to look at a little bit closer,” she told Pure Politics. “… We certainly don’t want to create a system that’s so high-stakes that there is an incentive to game the system.”

While the proposal would incentivize teachers in areas of science, engineering, mathematics and technology, some who pursue undergraduate degrees in those fields may find themselves rushed to reach the four-year timeframe outlined in Comer’s plan.

Kentucky State University, for instance, offers a five-year pre-engineering program that requires three years of study at KSU before the student transfers to an engineering school for another two years.

McDaniel said if elected, the incoming administration would work with universities to craft plans so such programs can be completed within four years.

“That is a very realistic proposition to do,” he said. “I know that it’s done regularly by students who have a lot of initiative, and I think we can make that a very good, long-term proposition.”

Education has been a topic of debate within the GOP primary. Common Core has been squarely in Republicans’ crosshairs on the campaign trail, and candidates generally support charter schools.

Charter schools are a key piece of Louisville real estate developer Hal Heiner’s campaign platform, and while Comer voiced his support for allowing charter schools here, he said they “are not a one-size-fits-all approach to school choice.”


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