The Republican hold on Kentucky’s legislature expanded dramatically in this month’s election with the GOP picking up additional seats in both the state House and Senate. But will their super-super majority make a difference in one of the places many Kentucky families need it the most – expanding their educational options?
The COVID-19 crisis has vividly illustrated how hard it is for the public education system to respond to rapidly changing circumstances and its tendency to default to “one-size-fits-all” options has been on full display. With mounting evidence that schools are not the source of major COVID outbreaks, thousands of parents are eager to send their kids back to school, but most simply do not have that option.
Many districts have provided an alternative where students can attend on certain days of the week while learning online the rest of the time, but few have returned to full-time instruction, and Kentucky’s two largest districts have refused to consider even a hybrid option. Their students, many of whom have the most to lose academically from being locked out of their school buildings, may not return to class for the remainder of the year.
Some families, depending on where they live, have been able to access in-person private school options or utilize homeschooling, but most are stuck with whatever the local district offers, whether that is the best fit for their child or not. That’s because Kentucky is one of only a handful of states without a single meaningful school choice policy.
The upcoming legislative session presents the best chance in state history to correct that problem. Governor Andy Beshear, who until entering the governor’s office sent his own children to private schools, is an ardent foe of giving families more education options. But the GOP super-majority makes it possible to give families relief, even if the governor opposes them.
There are many school choice policies that have successfully expanded education options for students in other states, and Kentucky lawmakers should consider them all.
First, the legislature should institute a statewide open-enrollment policy so that students may attend any public school with an open seat, regardless of their district of residency, and the state’s education dollars for that child should follow the student to his or her school of choice. Under current law, larger districts are at an enormous advantage against their smaller, independent district peers and frequently close the gates to keep students from crossing district lines to attend school.
Second, Kentucky should join 18 other states and adopt a scholarship tax credit that encourages private donations to scholarship programs that help eligible students attend a private school if their parents believe that is the best fit for their child. This year Edchoice Kentucky, where I serve on the board of directors, will advocate for a law establishing “Education Opportunity Accounts” that use these privately-funded scholarships to help access new education options in both public and private school settings.
Finally, Kentucky passed a charter school law in 2017 but failed to provide a way for state education dollars to follow students to their school of choice. As a result, not a single charter school has opened. The legislature should finally fix that problem. Charter schools have proven extremely successful in other states, in particular for low-income students of color. Kentucky’s students can’t keep waiting for these kinds of options.
As always, the education establishment will ferociously oppose giving families these new choices. They will claim that school choice deprives their districts of much-needed funds. But none of these school choice options adds a penny to the state’s education budget. Rather, they let dollars follow students, just like Pell grant dollars follow eligible students to the college or university – public or private – of their choice.
If educators believe schools need more money, they should lobby the legislature for it (as they inevitably will and always do). What they should not do is bar the schoolhouse doors to prevent children from leaving when another school can better meet their needs.
The education establishment will unleash their fury in opposition, but every election in recent memory has proven that Republican legislators can take hard votes and challenge the status quo.
Far from punishing them, voters have rewarded the GOP with more and more control of the General Assembly. Especially in light of school shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time for Kentucky lawmakers to finally use that power on behalf of the state’s children and families.
Gary Houchens is professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University. He served on the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016-2019.
Kentucky Today does not necessarily endorse the views of opinion writers published in the Perspectives section.