It's been a exciting week for advocates of expanded school choice in Kentucky with testimony before members of the state legislature, a press conference by Louisville pastors, and a kickoff event for the EdChoice Kentucky coalition.
On Monday school choice supporters appeared before the Kentucky General Assembly's Interim Joint Committee on Education. Dr. Vicki Alger, an expert of school choice policies, testified about the concept of education savings accounts (ESAs). While states have configured ESAs in various ways, Dr. Alger described how the idea would work in Kentucky based on Arizona's current policy.
Families of school-aged children would receive an ESA debit card worth 90% of the adjusted SEEK amount for that child (the state's portion of per pupil funding for children attending public schools). Families could then use that card toward tuition at non-public schools or to pay for other education expenses associated with homeschooling, tutoring costs, therapies for special-needs students, etc. Besides vastly expanding the educational options for Kentucky families, such a policy would reap the state and local school districts significant financial benefits. Dr. Alger has prepared a report identifying the average ESA amount and cost savings to every Kentucky public school district using Arizona's approach. You can access that report here, and I'll be blogging about it in more detail in coming days.
Andrew Vandiver, associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, also testified about the concept of scholarship tax credits, a key initiative of the EdChoice Kentucky coalition (more on that below), an idea I've previously written about here, here, and here. Such a proposal would use a tax credit to encourage more private donations to scholarship programs that help low- and middle-income families afford tuition in non-public schools. Andy was join alongside Heather Huddleston of School Choice Scholarships, one of the state's largest such scholarship granting organizations, and Sylvie Umuhoza, a Rwandan refugee and graduate of a Kentucky non-public school who personally benefited from such a scholarship. Heather emphasized that the demand for scholarships far outpaces donations, and a scholarship tax credit would help remedy that situation.
Responses from anti-school choice members of the committee were somewhat predictable with Senator Reggie Thomas (D-Lexington) saying that such proposals would ultimately drain funds away from public schools and Representative Linda Belcher (D-Shepherdsville) claiming that students with special needs are better served by public schools. Andrew Vandiver of the Catholic Conference explained that states save money from school choice proposals because, in part, parents of non-public school students still pay school taxes but the local districts do not have to educate those students. Representative Belcher's comments reflect a kind of educational paternalism that suggests politicians and education bureaucrats know better than parents what schools would best serve their own children's needs.
You can watch the complete testimony here courtesy of KET.
Rally for charter schools
Later Monday afternoon, the Kentucky Pastors in Action Coalition, a group of Louisville church leaders, held a rally before the evening meeting of the Jefferson County Public Schools. The pastors called for charter schools and other school choice measures to address the lingering performance problems and intractable achievement gaps in the Louisville schools.
Kentucky remains one of only eight states that still prohibits charter schools. You can read more about charter schools, how they work, and why they are good for students, here.
School choice roundtable
On Tuesday morning I participated in a roundtable discussion hosted by the Bluegrass Institute (where I serve on their board of scholars) and featuring Dr. Vicki Alger, who testified the day before about education savings accounts (ESAs). In our discussion, which also included state Representative James Tipton (R-Taylorsville) and former Kentucky gubernatorial candidate and education activist Hal Heiner, Dr. Alger further explored the financial implications of ESAs. She noted that Kentucky already recognizes $23 million in higher education tax credits each year, a policy that is viewed as a smart investment in the state's future, and an amount that pales in comparison to the state's $6 billion annual education budget.
Dr. Alger further emphasized that the various school choice policies under consideration in Kentucky (charter schools, tuition scholarship tax credits, ESAs, etc.) should not be viewed as conflicting with each other, but rather complementary approaches that combined can vastly expand educational options for Kentucky's families.
EdChoice Kentucky kickoff
Later on Tuesday morning I was pleased to host a kickoff event for the EdChoice Kentucky coalition, where I serve on the board of directors. EdChoice Kentucky is a coalition of citizens and organizations committed to offering Kentucky families a richer array of schooling options. Our focus at this time is on scholarship tax credits. Speakers included Senator Ralph Alvarado (R-Winchester), Andrew Vandiver of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, and Debbie Abney, a single parent whose daughters have directly benefitted from scholarship programs.
The event include the introduction of the coalition's website, www.edchoiceky.com (you can also following the group on Twitter, @EdChoiceKY), plus Andrew shared compelling data from a statewide telephone poll of 500 Kentuckians carried out by an independent consulting company this summer. The poll revealed strong bipartisan support for school choice policies and 73% of respondents had a favorable view of scholarship tax credits (47% had a strongly favorable view).
I'll be writing more about these polling numbers in an upcoming post, but email me for details if you want a copy of the charts shared at our kickoff event. These data, and the enthusiastic response to this week's events, suggest Kentuckians are hungry for new ideas to support educational improvement in the Commonwealth. I'm honored to be a part of this movement, and will be regularly reporting our progress.
Note: As always, opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer or higher education colleagues.