Why Expanding Education Options in Kentucky is a Must
Gary W. Houchens
Two major educational events took place last week. First, last week the Kentucky Supreme Court heard argument in the lawsuit to block educational choice in Kentucky. And this week, the Kentucky Department of Education released standardized test results for Kentucky public schools beginning in the spring of 2022. As expected, they reflect a steep decline in core subjects like reading and math.
Both news events illustrate the urgency of expanding education options in Kentucky.
The issue before the Kentucky Supreme Court is whether the Education Opportunity Account Act is authorized under the state constitution. The EOA Act encourages private donations to nonprofit scholarship programs to help families with education expenses, ranging from textbooks, technology, and tutoring to private school tuition. Donors who give to the program receive a state tax credit in exchange for their contribution.
Opponents claim this amounts to spending public money on non-public schools. But tax credit-funded educational choice programs have been in effect for decades in other states. From the U.S. Supreme Court to every state supreme court that has heard a similar challenge, no legal action to overturn a tax credit-funded education choice program has ever succeeded. .
As Justice Anthony Kennedy said in ACSTO v. Win, “[p]private bank accounts cannot be assimilated to the… public treasury. The reason is obvious. Such a position would upset modern tax law.
Background:Group behind historic education case sues Kentucky’s new school choice law
Parents want more options
A decision blocking the educational choice would not last in the long term. The vast majority of parents want more options and most states have listened. More than 30 states have educational choice programs, including all states bordering Kentucky. But the delay caused by a negative decision would be costly.
Parents wishing to use the EOA law have already lost two academic years because of this litigation and the children’s needs cannot be suspended. Each year of delay means that thousands of students lose the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Which brings us back to the test results released this week.
Kentucky has faced a lack of educational opportunity for years. Wealthy parents can choose the school, public or private, that best suits their students. They can also afford additional services when their children are struggling. Average families often have to take whatever their assigned public schools provide.
This lack of resources was even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. When many public schools closed for in-person learning, thousands of parents who could afford tuition or the cost of homeschooling made the switch. Over the past two years, more than 20,000 additional students used a private option, which were much more likely to stay open or reopen faster during the pandemic. Public schools in the state lost more than 16,000 students during the same two-year period.
Recently released data from the National Assessment of Education Progress shows that nearly two decades of academic growth have been wiped out by the pandemic. Nationally, this year’s ACT scores fell to the lowest point in 30 years, and Kentucky students lost more ground than the national average. State-level testing data released this week shows a similar decline. Less than half of elementary school students in Kentucky were fluent in reading and barely a third were fluent in math.
After:Kentucky School Report Cards: What the Latest Test Results Show About JCPS, Kentucky Schools
Families need help
Opponents often harshly remark that parents can now have a choice by paying out of pocket. Of course, this ignores the reality that the financial challenges facing low- and middle-income families are getting worse every day. While nonpublic schools in Kentucky provide millions of dollars in aid to help families with costs, the amount of need far exceeds what can be raised in charitable donations under the current system.
The stated purpose of the 2021 EOA Act was to “give more educational flexibility and choice to residents of Kentucky and to address disparities in the educational options available to students.” The latest test results show that this type of program is needed more than ever.
Let’s be clear; the challenges facing Kentucky students are enormous and we will need a comprehensive approach. Parents need innovative solutions for public schools as well as the flexibility created by educational choice programs. One-size-fits-all education solutions have never worked for families, and a new reading of the Kentucky Constitution that effectively bans educational choice programs will have a real devastating impact on families in the short term. Hopefully, for the sake of students, the Kentucky Supreme Court passes a decision that allows more investment in students and gives parents the tools they need to weather the educational disruptions of the past two years.
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, is a professor of educational administration at Western Kentucky University. He served on the Kentucky Board of Education from 2016 to 2019.