School Choice

Enemies of school choice need better slogans

In my latest op-ed for the Bowling Green Daily News, I took on the slogan being used by opponents of this year's school choice constitutional amenment that "public dollars are for public schools." This argument fails to convince on two fronts:

First, public dollars are already used in private colleges and universities. Pell grants, the GI Bill and government-subsidized student loans all follow beneficiaries to the college of their choice, including private, faith-based institutions. Even the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) program, which gives high school students money for college tuition based on their grades, can be used in private colleges. Many opponents of school choice have championed preschool programs that would empower Kentucky families with resources to choose from both public and private early childhood options.

Outside of education, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, the WIC program, Section 8 and Social Security are all programs that allow beneficiaries to choose from a wide variety of providers, almost all of which are private entities. It’s only in K-12 education that we systematically deny low- and middle-income families a choice in who educates their children.

As for the second problem with this slogan,

“public dollars for public schools” assumes education tax dollars automatically belong to public school districts and the state. Instead, school choice is based on the idea that, like the other programs just described, education is a highly personal public good. Education dollars are for helping children thrive intellectually. Families should be able to direct those resources to the provider that best fits their needs in the same way Medicare beneficiaries choose their own doctor and hospital.

Read the full argument here.

What research really says about school choice

The opponents of school choice are just getting started as they rev up to convince voters to oppose a constitutional amendment that would give lawmakers the opportunity to establish policies that assist families in accessing non-public school education options. A recent op-ed in the Louisville Courier Journal shows the lengths to which defenders of the status quo will go to distort the truth about school choice.

University of Kentucky economics professor emeritus John Garen and I penned a response, which appeared in newspapers around the state, including the Bowling Green Daily News. Here's an excerpt:

The enemies of giving families options constantly claim that education choice will devastate public schools. But the Indiana and Ohio studies clearly show that achievement among low-income students in public schools is not damaged by school choice. In fact, the authors of the Ohio study speculate that competition with private schools improved student learning outcomes in public schools.

The various defenders of the education establishment miss the point that your tax dollars are not meant to benefit the public school system, but rather students themselves. Education freedom means that we should start treating education like other public goods where the beneficiary (in this case, families) gets to choose their provider (schools of various kinds).

Kentucky’s school choice constitutional amendment gets us one step closer to funding students, not systems.

Read the whole thing here.

Toward a conservative vision of education


Earlier this week I was honored to join some of America's most prominent conservative education reformers in Phoenix, Arizona at the invitation of the Heritage Foundation. The Conservative Vision of Education conference featured leaders in K-12 and higher education, policy experts, and advocates. I attended in my role as policy advisor to Commonwealth Educational Opportunities. As the conference name implies, the gathering was meant as the first step toward articulating a compelling vision for education reform based on conservative principles.

Heritage President Kevin Roberts and Education Research Fellow Jason Bedrick framed the day's discussion by pointing out how conservatives have long been known for things they are against in education (federal overeach, divisive ideological content in schools, etc.), but other than school choice have sometimes struggled to articulate what they are for in ways that have consistently resonated with voters and policy makers. This is not because conservatives are short on education policy ideas, however, but perhaps because we've not attempted to ground those ideas in a clear and comprehensive understanding of what education is and what schools are for.

In his opening remarks, Roberts said that a conservative vision is closely tied to the conviction that education is for the formation of a virtuous citizenry that has gratitude for its cultural inheritance.

Three broad topics framed the day's discussion:

  • What is the proper role of STEM subjects in classical education?
  • How can we promote rich content as a complement to science-based reading instruction?
  • How do we transmit the best of our cultural heritage, especially in history and civics education, to today's youth?

Presenters with content expertise in each question provided background information and context, and then conference participants engaged in a vigorous discussion. At risk of oversimplifying the diverse and nuanced range of perspectives that surfaced, I think the rough consensus on the above questions were as follows:

  • Student mastery of applied science and math (as in technology and engineering) is a natural byproduct of a strong foundation in the humanities and advocates of classical education should not shy away from STEM, even as we recognize that a solid foundation in the liberal arts helps mitigate against the pure utilitarianism that is often associated with STEM subjects.
  • Rich, literature-based curricula are essential for promoting student mastery and the necessary complement to the phonics instruction that figures prominently in science-based reading strategies. Conservatives should advocate for improvements in state education standards and especially the local adoption and implementation of strong, comprehensive, content-rich curricula.
  • Conservatives should not shy away from contrasting our view of Western Civilization with that of liberals. We should own that we want children to learn the best (and worst) features of our cultural inheritance, but generally be proud of our country and especially the moral and political virtues upon which it was founded.

The conversation was exciting and suggested a wide range of new directions and important questions for conservative education policy. There was insufficient time to turn all of those insights into an organized vision, but follow up activities will seek to condense the discussion into a more coherent manifesto. Personally, I had several takeaways that will inform my own work on education reform in Kentucky.

First, as I've written before, classical education is the most exciting development in the K-12 realm, but we must find ways to take the lessons of classical learning and apply them to traditional public schools. I haven't given up on the idea of a traditional public school district embracing classical education outright, but I believe for every district, we should insist on the implementation of content-rich curricula. Teachers should not be making daily decisions about what gets taught in their classrooms. Rather, schools should adopt curricula that clearly lay out the instructional materials for every grade with a strong emphasis on science, social studies, and rigorous math and science materials. Kentucky should continue to review and improve its standards, but the state should also review and recognize comprehensive curricular programs (Core Knowledge would be a good one) and incentivize districts to adopt and implement them.

Second, we should partner this emphasis on rich content with an expansion of Kentucky's science-based reading initiative. Every teacher and administrator in the state should be required to participate in LETRS, or some similar, rigorous professional development focused on the science of reading. Every university teacher education program should be required to teach this approach to reading and pre-service teachers should be assessed on it.

Third, conservatives should relentessly push for more school choice programs so that families and educators have an opportunity to offer more innovative education options, including classical learning, to every family. In Kentucky this year, that means promoting the constitutional amendment that will free legislators to adopt school choice policies without the interference of anti-school choice judges. Beyond, it means fighting to push the legislature to adopt the most robust school choice policies possible. School choice empowers parents to make schools more accountable to their child's needs, and to conservative values.

Finally, the work started by the Heritage Foundation this week should continue as we ground all of our policy efforts in a clear philosophical viewpoint about the meaning and purpose of education. This is, in part, the way I framed it recently:

Conservatives and liberals have very different views of the purpose of education. For conservatives, education involves the passing down of a civilization from one generation to the next, handing on values, ideas, and institutions that our forefathers found valuable. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. It is the transfer of a way of life.”

Of course, conservatives do not hold that everything from the past is worth conserving, nor that our institutions are never in need of updating. Repairs to our institutions must be made both because there is inevitable decay in the best of institutions due to human nature and because some institutions have proven unworkable or unjust over time. But conservatives seek to make repairs to institutions, causing as little damage to traditions as possible. Education is also about forming young people to not just honor the past, but to lead changes in the future that restore our social institutions to the original and enduring values of our culture.

And more fundamentally, conservatives believe that the primary purpose of education is to form young people for lives of virtue. Conservatives have a realistic understanding of human nature. We are born as fallen creatures in need of formation. Conservatives also believe in an enduring moral order that can be accessed through a combination of faith and reason and we can learn to better conform our lives to that enduring order. Schools in their various forms exist to help parents in their vocation of forming their children in just such a way.

That’s the conservative vision of education.

Conservative policy makers, political leaders, and education activists should regularly express our understanding of the goal and purpose of education and how it contrasts with that of progressives and liberals, who see education as either a purely utilitarian pursuit to train students to be good consumers or as a method of training them to dismantle the very foundations of Western Civilization. Parents and voters understand these differences, and we can make great headway in promoting conservative education policy by making them clear.

Related posts:


The Conservative Reclamation of Education

NKYTPI was recently invited to speak to the Northern Kentucky Tea Party on Kentucky's proposed school choice constitutional amendment. My friend and colleague Dr. Thomas Davis, president of Commonwealth Educational Opportunities (where I serve as a policy advisor), gave an update on the current legislative landscape, and then I situated my comments within the larger context of education in Kentucky and America. I titled my remarks "The Conservative Reclamation of Education."

I tried to offer a definition of "conservative" based on the ideas of political philsopher Yoram Hazony, explain how conservatives and liberals see the purposes of education differently, and argue why conservatives must reclaim education institutions for their original purpose. I also tried to describe what a conservative reclamation of education looks like in practice and policy. Excerpt:

Conservatives and liberals have very different views of the purpose of education. For conservatives, education involves the passing down of a civilization from one generation to the next, handing on values, ideas, and institutions that our forefathers found valuable. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. It is the transfer of a way of life.”

Of course, conservatives do not hold that everything from the past is worth conserving, nor that our institutions are never in need of updating. Repairs to our institutions must be made both because there is inevitable decay in the best of institutions due to human nature and because some institutions have proven unworkable or unjust over time. But conservatives seek to make repairs to institutions, causing as little damage to traditions as possible. Education is also about forming young people to not just honor the past, but to lead changes in the future that restore our social institutions to the original and enduring values of our culture.

And more fundamentally, conservatives believe that the primary purpose of education is to form young people for lives of virtue. Conservatives have a realistic understanding of human nature. We are born as fallen creatures in need of formation. Conservatives also believe in an enduring moral order that can be accessed through a combination of faith and reason and we can learn to better conform our lives to that enduring order. Schools in their various forms exist to help parents in their vocation of forming their children in just such a way.

That’s the conservative vision of education.

You can watch the talk at the link here. Thomas goes first and I come up around the 16 minute mark.

Usual disclaimer: The views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer, organizations with which I am involved, or anyone affiliated.

Here comes Kentucky's school choice constitutional amendment

Parents know best

Update, 3/13/2024: The Kentucky General Assembly approved HB 2 in modified form. It will now go to the voters as a ballot initiative in the November election. Many thanks to the hardworking lawmakers who made this possible.

Update, 1/27/2024: A second bill proposing a school choice constitutional amendment has been filed. House Bill 2, sponsored by Republican Majority Caucus Chair Suzanne Miles (R-Owensboro), accomplishes the same thing as the previously-proposed HB 208, with somewhat different language. Key members of House leadership, including Speaker David Osborne, are co-sponsors, indicating a strong chance that this bill will advance. Please continue to encourage lawmakers to work together, reconcile the language of the two bills, and unite to bring a strong constitutional amendment to voters this fall so that every family, regardless of income or zip code, might have the chance to choose a school that's the best fit for their child.

The biggest fight yet in Kentucky's long war for education freedom is about to get underway. House Bill 208 has been introduced in the Kentucky House of Representatives. This bill would place a question on the November 2024 general election ballot asking Kentucky voters to accept or reject a change to the state constitution allowing the legislature to adopt and fund school choice programs that do not use money already appropriated for public schools. 

A constitutional amendment is necessary because Kentucky judges, violating legal precedent from other states and even the United States Supreme Court, have repeatedly ruled that previous school choice laws adopted by the General Assembly are illegal under the state constitution.

The language of the proposed amendment changes Section 183 of the Kentucky constitution to read as follows (bold type represents new words):

To ensure that parents have options to guide the educational path of their children, the General Assembly shall, by appropriate legislation, provide for and oversee a[an efficient] system of common schools throughout the State, and provide for a portion of the educational costs for parents of students outside of that common school system. Sections 184 to 189 of this Constitution shall not prevent, nor require a further referendum for, any provision for the educational costs of students outside of the system of common schools for parents of limited financial means, as determined by law, so long as no such funds are taken directly from the common school fund.

Like all bills, the wording of the amendment is likely to change somewhat as it works its way through the General Assembly, but this is the basic "ask" to Kentucky voters.

There are some important things to note about HB 208.

First, if approved by voters, this amendment will not automatically give Kentucky families new education options. It just prevents judges from using the state constitution to circumvent the legislature when lawmakers do, in the future, adopt new school choice legislation. The General Assembly can then introduce charter schools, scholarship tax credits, education savings accounts, or other ways to give low- and middle-income families the same kinds of education options enjoyed by the children of affluent families every day.

Second, it is a persistent falsehood, deliberately spread by the education estabishment, that school choice policies "drain money" from traditional public schools. This amendment makes clear that any future school choice program will be funded outside of the "system of common schools," the constitution's archaic term for "public school system." School choice in Kentucky, following this amendment, will actually increase the total amount of funding for education in the Commonwealth.

Finally, HB 208 must be approved by the Kentucky General Assembly before it goes to the voters. In the past, Kentucky lawmakers have been highly reluctant to pass robust school choice laws, even though Kentucky is completely surrounded by states that have embraced school choice and are experiencing great results. This is a testament to the incredible political power of the education establishment, which will lobby ferociously to keep HB 208 from moving forward. 

Call to action: Kentuckians need to press their representatives in the House hard, first to co-sponsor this bill (as of this writing it already has 18 [29 as of 1/24/2024] sponsors), and then to move the bill from the Committee on Committees into the appropriate House committee for further consideration, and then on to the full floor for a vote. A constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths vote of both chambers, so HB 208 needs 60 votes in the House. 

An important point to tell your lawmaker: they are not technically voting for school choice if they support HB 208. They are voting to give Kentucky voters the chance to decide whether Kentucky should be allowed to consider school choice. There will be enormous amounts of work to do later to convince lawmakers to follow up with strong school choice legislation in a future session. For now, let's just focus on moving this amendment forward so more ordinary Kentucky families can choose the school that best fits the needs of their children. See more information about how school choice works in the links below.

Usual disclaimer: All views expressed on this website are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer, other organizations with which I am associated, or anyone affiliated.

Related posts:

Kentucky's National School Choice Week Celebration 2023

SCW 2023I was honored to speak at Kentucky's 2023 National School Choice Week event in Frankfort this last Tuesday, January 24. This year we held a press conference highlighting the current status of school choice efforts in Kentucky. I was joined on the stage by EdChoice Kentucky President Andrew Vandiver and Mindy Crawford, director of the Providence School, a private, faith-based school serving students with special needs. You can read coverage of the event from Kentucky Today here.

Kentucky families were dealt a blow last month when the Kentucky Supreme Court, in a decision that contradicted the legal reasoning of numerous state courts and even the US Supreme Court, unanimously struck down the new Education Opportunities Account law. As Mr. Vandiver pointed out in his remarks at our press conference, every neighboring state around Kentucky now has at least one or more school choice policy programs that help give low- and middle-income families or families with special needs children additional education options.

However, the fight for education options will go on in Kentucky and advocates are motivated like never before. Below is the full text of my remarks:

I’m so pleased to be here today to celebrate National School Choice Week. Of course I am not speaking to you today on behalf of my employer, but I am here as a career educator of 25 years.

Education is my life’s passion, and I’ve been blessed to work in and visit so many schools over the two and half decades I’ve served students and their families as a teacher, principal, district administrator, and professor. Many of those schools have been outstanding, but one of the things I’ve learned, both as an educator and especially as the dad of my own school-aged children, is that no school, no matter how good, can be a perfect fit for every child. That’s why I believe every family, no matter their income or zip code, should have access to the same kinds of excellent school choice options, both public and private, that my own family enjoys. It's time for Kentucky to finally get with the program and join the many other states that are funding students, not systems.

And I’m not alone in feeling this way. Polling data has shown again and again that Kentucky families want more education options. Not only do they want more options, they are also exercising their choices whenever they can.

In a research report I conducted for EdChoice Kentucky last August, I reviewed public school enrollment data over a five-year period, from 2018 to 2022. What we found is that the number of Kentucky families choosing to homeschool or send their children to nonpublic schools has skyrocketed. Across Kentucky, the number of children being educated in nonpublic school settings has risen by more than 20,000, a percentage increase of 26 percent, to an all-time high of almost 100,000 students. Last school year alone, Kentucky nonpublic school participation increased by more than 8 percent.

When you consider that some undetermined number of families are also choosing to send their kids to a public school outside of their own district boundaries, these numbers make clear that there is a strong demand for school choice. But unfortunately far too many families are unable to exercise such options.

Many of my good friends in the education establishment are afraid to give families choices because they worry it will hurt public schools. But that has not been the case in states that have embraced educational choice.

As an example, Florida has one of the most robust school choice policy environments in the country, with more than one and a half million students - almost half of the state's entire student population - choosing to attend a school other than their assigned public school option. Far from harming public schools, Florida enjoys higher levels of public school student achievement than Kentucky. In fact, Florida’s public school students outpace Kentucky’s public school students academically across every demographic.

Just last weekend I was blessed to visit Cristo Rey Salesian High School in Tampa Florida, which serves 200 students – and more every day – all from low-income families who otherwise could never access the kind of robust, faith-based, college preparatory program offered by Cristo Rey – except for Florida’s school choice policies.

Kentucky’s students deserve the same opportunities as students in Florida and the many other states that provide some form of education choice. Kentucky is an outlier in systematically denying low and middle income children education options enjoyed by every affluent family.

But not for long. The demand is clear and Kentucky will not give up the fight to make sure every student and every family is empowered to find the learning environment that best meets their needs. Like so many other states, Kentucky will break down those establishment barriers and find a way to fund students, not systems. The day is coming and I relish being a part of the fight and the inevitable victory for education freedom.

From Socialist Teacher to Conservative Professor

This essay was originally published on the website The Chalkboard Review on December 8, 2020. Sometime in 2022 the website was purchased by new owners who, without notifying me, removed all of my published essays. Given that the website operator has failed to respond to my inquiries about this removal, I can only conclude that my essays were deleted because of the philosophical or policy content. Therefore I am reposting these essays here.

Geographically, I have not traveled far as an educator. While I have lived away for a period of years, the university where I now serve as professor of education administration is the in the same town where I began my career as a social studies teacher at a nearby middle school 24 years ago. I live just 25 miles from where I grew up, the son of an elementary school teacher who never anticipated his own career as an educator.

Philosophically, though, my journeys have been broad, from socialist to libertarian to conservative. My core values have, by and large, never changed, but my understanding of how to effectively enact those values, especially in public policy and particularly in education, have shifted considerably. In a time when teachers unions and other forces within the education establishment try to pretend educators are monolithic in their (progressive to leftist radical) political views, it is more important than ever to tell our personal stories of dissent against the myth that teachers all share common views of school choice, pension reform, accountability, or even the purpose of education itself.

My parents were hard-working Baptists. There were socially conservative but between my factory worker father’s New Deal, labor-focused life experience and my schoolteacher mother’s Civil Rights era progressivism, by high school I had inherited a pretty ferocious left-leaning view of the world that made me decidedly liberal for our little Southern town. It was all deeply imbued with the Christian Social Gospel, a concern for justice and fairness for “the least of these, my brothers.”

When I started reading political theory in late high school, I discovered a strain of socialism that portended to be “democratic” and I was soon a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Contemporary socialist star Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez was in diapers at that point in time. Outside a small circle of left-wing political nerds, no one knew who Burlington mayor turned congressman Bernie Sanders was, but I did. I was reading Dissent, Mother Jones, and In These Times, organizing student groups to protest the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, writing screeds that I tried to pare down as op-eds for the college newspaper, and wondering how I could make a living as a professional agitator with a degree in philosophy and religious studies.

After a year of graduate school studying religious ethics, I was looking for a way to be more “in the trenches” serving “the people” while also devoting time to writing and activism, and that’s when I first considered becoming a teacher. A few semesters later I had turned a minor in history into a certificate and was teaching middle school.

The year was 1996. A well-read libertarian friend was poking holes in my socialist worldview and I started picking up copies of Reason and Liberty magazine. The charismatic and well-spoken Harry Browne was the Libertarian Party candidate for president that year and he deeply impressed me. But the most important factor in me giving up socialism was becoming a public school teacher.

I was in a great school, but even as a first-year teacher, I immediately saw the enormous waste and inefficiencies of the system. I saw how many children were being poorly served, despite the best efforts of many teachers, because a government monopoly inevitably tends toward one-size-fits-all solutions that ultimately leave untold numbers of kids behind. I saw how unprepared I was a teacher for what my students really needed, how weak and inconsistent the curriculum was across classrooms, and, sadly, I saw incompetence on the part of some portion of my colleagues that was routinely ignored by school leaders and defended by their unions or professional associations.

I loved my job, but I could see that the public school system was deeply flawed, and its flaws mirrored virtually all of the bureaucratic, top-down, impersonal structures of socialism that were supposed to bring about equality of outcomes and peace on earth but never did, and in fact had historically wrought misery.

Over the next decade or so I drifted from right-libertarianism to left-libertarianism and back depending on which party held political power and what the major issues of the day were. I loved the clean, logical consistency of libertarianism even though I knew well there wasn’t a single place in history where such a system could be found in practice. But the realities weren’t that important because I was childless and busy building a career and had little time for practical politics anyway. My plans to be a professional rabble rouser quickly gave way to a new trajectory. I moved rapidly from teaching into school administration, eventually landing in a district-level role, earning a PhD along the way.

My views began to shift again when I started a family and became a professor at the college where I had earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree. I want to avoid over-generalizing because there is still much I admire in libertarianism, but it is a philosophy that tends to assume humans are totally free and unencumbered individuals just sort of floating in space until they voluntarily choose to associate with others for mutual benefit, or until someone else’s will is imposed on them, which always involves violence and something akin to slavery.

I did not find that view of the human person or of society particularly helpful as a parent. My children and I are bound together by love, yes, but also of necessity and nature. We don’t choose our families, and families are the most basic and necessary structures of human society.

Atomized individuals can’t effectively raise kids. Strong, intact families matter, something I had already observed in my own students. Whether their own families attend or not, healthy kids need lots of people in their community to regularly attend churches that actually press them to become better human beings and not just feel good about themselves (what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” the de fact religion of most American Christians). Successful families also need strong neighborhoods, vibrant communities of voluntary associations like sports leagues, church youth groups, and civic organizations that engage people in service to and with their neighbors.

All of these “intermediate institutions,” as the great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbett called them, have experienced enormous decay over the generations in ways directly related to the hyper-individualist, Progressive-driven, endless expansion of government on the one hand and the classically liberal/libertarian, all-mighty free market on the other, aided and abetting by a militantly secular (and later I would discover, Marxist) shift in Western culture itself.

I saw all of this first hand as a parent and as an educator. It didn’t happen overnight, but one day I woke up and knew I was a conservative in the sense that Russell Kirk understood the word. Tradition and values matter in preserving a civilization worth handing on to our children.

Kirk saw conservativism as an attitude and disposition more than a political program. But the conservative worldview has real policy implications, and I saw those more clearly than ever in education. From the professional protection and distance of a tenured university professorship, I began pursuing education policy work, especially around the issue of school choice. These efforts led to my involvement as a policy advisor and supporting scholar for state-level education reform groups, and eventually to an appointment on the state board of education.

The education establishment in my state, desperate to maintain its monopoly, has ferociously fought back against any effort to expand education choice for families yearning to give their children a different option. Thus far school choice supporters have lost more battles than we’ve won, but every day momentum builds, especially as parents have become more aware of how their children are doing in school during COVID and how every kid has unique needs not just any school can meet.

But conservatives have more to contribute to education policy than just school choice. The excellent collection of essays issued earlier this year, How to Education an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, makes clear that conservatives should care not just how education is delivered, but about its actual content.

In my own experience, far too many schools, whether public, private, or charter - and far too many educators, including conservatives - have implicitly or explicitly adopted the attitude that education is all about vocational preparation: how we sort kids toward careers and train them in work habits that will make them productive contributors to the economy.

Certainly, this is an important goal for our schools, but it neglects the much older purpose of education, and one that is deeply connected to the cultivation of culture and the protection of our civilizational heritage. The first goal of schooling is to help families and communities cultivate virtuous citizens. The classical sense of liberty is to be free enough of selfishness that one can actually choose the good, the true, and the beautiful. And this should once again be the self-conscious goal of schools.

Along these lines, I have increasing turned my attention toward the dearth of meaningful instruction in social studies, science, and the arts, especially in early grades, and how standards and curricula in those subjects can be improved for all schools. I have argued that schools should not be shy about training students to be critical patriots, capable of loving their country even as they recognize and understand her many flaws. The battle for school choice definitely goes on, but there’s a battle to be fought for higher quality learning in all schools, no matter who they serve.

With such a journey from socialist to libertarian to conservative, is there a chance my views will change yet again in the future? I certainly hope I continue learning new things, appreciating new perspectives, and growing in wisdom.

What seems clear to me is that for the most part, my values have not changed in all these years, but only the means by which I think we best get there. I maintain the same commitment to equality of opportunity as I did as a loud, young, socialist teacher, but now with a much greater appreciation for the role that robust institutions of family, church, local communities, civic organizations, and other structures of civil society play in accomplishing those goals – and a deep concern to guard them for the future generations.

Meanwhile my intellectual past gives me a common language with – and a great deal of understanding and compassion for – those who occupy the political and philosophical spaces I used to tread. Though we may differ about tactics, I still believe the vast majority of educators share the same goals for what our schools should accomplish, and so there is much work to be done through constructive disagreement, and I still welcome that conversation.

Kentucky nonpublic school enrollment skyrockets

In the last five years, the number of Kentucky students being educated at home or in private schools has grown by more than 26%, to nearly 100,000 children, representing more than 15% of the state's student body.

In a report tracking these trends for EdChoice Kentucky (where I serve on the board of directors), I analyzed data available from the Kentucky Department of Education. These data show that homeschooling participation in Kentucky has doubled since 2017, to almost 20,000 students. Private school enrollment has grown by 10 percent during the same time.

Last year alone Kentucky saw an 8% surge in nonpublic education participation. Homeschooling grew by 11% in 2021-2022.

Last year's data also show record numbers of students with disabilities and English language learners being educated at home or in private schools. Contrary to the claims of some in the education establishment who assert that our most vulnerable students can only be successfully served in public schools, 25,000 Kentucky children with disabilities are being educated elsewhere. The number of students from immigrant families being served in nonpublic settings quadrupled last year alone. See Table 1 below from the report Ending the Status Quo: Kentucky's Parents Increasily Choose Nonpublic Education Options.

KY nonpublic enrollment trends

The data reports from the Kentucky Department of Education upon which this analysis are based can be found below:

Download 2018 Declartaion of Participation PNP Homeschool Totals

Download Declaration of Participation Report Summary for FY 2022

Download Copy of FY23 Declaration of Participation Report Summary with change from FY22

These data trends demonstrate a clear demand on the part of Kentucky familes for new education options, and policymakers should respond by making sure every student has access to those options, no matter where they live or their family's income. As I wrote in Ending the Status Quo,

At least since 2018 and in rapidly increasing numbers, Kentucky parents have challenged the status quo that dictates children have no education options other than what the local public school district provides. Massive surges in homeschooling and private education demonstrate there is a clear demand for school choice, and Kentucky’s leaders should respond accordingly.

Related posts:

KY General Assembly 2022 Education Recap


The 2022 Kentucky General Assembly concluded its work last month. The Republican-dominated legislature made record financial investments long desired by the education establishment, but failed to pass all but the most modest bills that would further empower Kentucky parents with more choices and stronger voices in their children’s education.

The budget passed by lawmakers and signed by Governor Beshear invests billions of general fund dollars into Kentucky schools for each of the next two years. That investment includes $130 million to fund full-day kindergarten classrooms (almost all districts already provide full-day kindergarten but pay for half of it from local funds). The budget also includes $274 million in transportation funds, another major expense that local districts have been subsidizing themselves for years. Both of these provisions have been top priorities for educators since at least my own years of service on the Kentucky Board of Education (2016-2019).

The budget also fully funded the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System, allocating more than $2 billion over the biennium, far more than the actuarial amount required by law, and raised the base state education funding allotment to a record level of $4,100 per pupil per year next year and then $4,200 per pupil the following year. Millions and millions of dollars of new funds were approved for career and technical education, gifted and talented programs, early learning, and Family Resource-Youth Service Centers (FRYSC).

The left-leaning education establishment has long (and falsely) painted the Republican majority in the General Assembly as anti-education meanies, and in their typical fashion, I did not see much public gratitude to lawmakers for their lavish beneficence. In fact, some teachers took to social media to lambaste lawmakers for not also mandating a teacher salary increase like they provided for state employees.

These educators are barking up the wrong tree. The many millions of dollars local districts will now save on kindergarten and transportation can certainly be used for salary increases if local boards of education want to use those funds accordingly. A little gratitude seems in order here.

I’ve never objected to overall increases in education spending, though I don’t see any evidence doing so will have any meaningful impact on student learning if those dollars are spent indiscriminately. And I have never favored pouring more money into the system itself without greater accountability to parents through school choice. We ought to be finding ways to fund students, not systems.

Sadly, this year’s General Assembly passed up the opportunity to make significant strides in that direction. HB 305 would have corrected problems in last year’s education opportunity accounts law, but House leaders refused to even place it in committee for a hearing. And while HB 9 started out as a strong bill to restore charter school funding and improve authorization, the version of the bill that was ultimately passed (over Gov. Beshear’s veto of course) is likely the weakest charter school law in the country.

Other policies that would further empower parents and the public met similar mixed results with this general assembly.

SB 1 shifted principal hiring and curriculum decisions away from unaccountable School-Based Decision-Making Councils to the local district superintendent. That is a step in the right direction because at least superintendents are accountable to locally elected boards of education.

But far too often those local boards defer blindly to the recommendations of education bureaucrats or powerful adult interests like teachers’ unions. HB 121, which passed without the Governor’s signature, requires every regular local board of education meeting to include at least 15 minutes of public comment. That’s good, considering that some districts had stopped allowing the public to speak at their meetings when local citizens started voicing concerns about critical race theory (CRT), mask mandates and other topics.

SB 1, through its merger with SB 138, also addressed – in an indirect way – widespread public concern about CRT by improving the state’s social studies standards. Rather than restricting CRT, SB 1 stipulated  certain concepts that should be included in Kentucky social studies classrooms, including a set of important historical documents that previously did not appear in the state’s standards.

Again, this is a step in the right direction, and I think SB 138 avoids some potential unintended consequences of some of the other CRT-related bills. But it will not stop political indoctrination from taking place in Kentucky classrooms. To address that issue – which ultimately must be done at the local level - Kentucky needs to further empower the public to have direct access to the instructional materials being used in classrooms. Transparency provisions like this got no consideration from this General Assembly.

Likewise, lawmakers failed to protect parental rights over their children when it comes to health-related mandates. HB 51 would have given parents the right to opt out of school district mask and vaccine mandates. This bill passed the House but was not heard by the Senate.

What this legislative session suggests is that except for wildly popular (and justified), red-meat conservative issues like requiring Kentucky athletes to play sports according to their biological gender (SB 83), so-call conservative Republicans routinely demur when it comes to standing up for parents and the public against the education establishment.

This is bewildering because kowtowing to these groups will never earn their support when it comes election time. The establishment will always and forever favor Democrat candidates who just parrot their endless calls for more money and less accountability. School choice, educational transparency, nonideological instruction, and freedom from mandates are popular, not just within the Republican base that elects these lawmakers, but among voters in general.

The lessons of the 2022 General Assembly are clear: all the meaningful arguments in Kentucky policy are taking place on the right side of the political divide, and time and again the political establishment is siding with the education establishment. Voters are going to have to exercise a political solution if they want to see more common sense, transparency, choice, and accountability in the state’s education system.

Image: RXUYDC, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Will charter schools finally come to Kentucky?

Charter picThe Kentucky legislature has decided to redeem its failure to follow through on its flawed 2017 charter school law by trying again. HB 9 was introduced this week, and if passed as written it will correct a number of important problems with the 2017 law - which never yielded a single charter school - and may open the door to new educational options for thousands of Kentucky students.

As a long-standing supporter of charter schools, there is much that I admire in HB 9. It doesn't fully fund students, instead of systems, as I would prefer, but it goes a long way to creating a real possibility for high-performing charter options in some of our neediest districts.

Charter schools are public schools operated independently of local boards of education. They are tuition-free and open to all students. Most importantly, they are schools of choice, meaning no one can ever be compelled to attend a charter school. Students always go there because it's the first choice of their parents. And charter schools have consistently demonstrated outstanding student achievement results for students of color in urban areas. Read more about how charter schools work here.

Kentucky is one of only six states without charter schools.

In 2017, the state legislature passed a statewide charter school bill, but included a one-year funding mechanism. The next year they failed to take up the funding provision, and therefore no charter schools have opened in Kentucky. For five years Kentucky families who might have enjoyed the benefits of a charter school have been denied that option.

HB 9 addresses this problem by establishing a mechanism that would allow state and federal dollars to flow with a student to his or her chosen charter school. As long as the charter school is  also in the district where the student resides, local dollars would also follow, and also transportation dollars unless the district chose to deliver students to the charter school.

Other than fundraising, this transfer of dollars is the only way charter schools have of generating revenue. They depend on families choosing their services, and if they can't attract students, they can't stay open. HB 9 will mean charters that can draw students will have a reasonable shot at success.

HB 9 also addresses another serious problem with the 2017 law, which made local school districts the only entity that can authorize a charter school (the mayors of Lexington and Louisville could also choose to be authorizers, but neither has done so). Authorizers are the contract holders for charter schools, approving their application, providing oversight and making sure they meet their performance targets. But local school districts are never going to want to authorize a charter school that is going to compete directly with them for students. That puts both the charter applicant and the district in an unwinnable position. 

Also under the 2017 law, if a district denied a charter application the only appeal was to the Kentucky Board of Education. But in 2019, Governor Beshear fired all the members of the KBE on his first day in office, precisely because we were supporters of school choice. It's highly unlikely that the current board - appointed entirely by anti-school choice Beshear - is going to support a charter applicant in their effort to compete with local districts. 

HB 9 fixes these issues by creating new authorizers and a new appeals pathway. College and universities may select to be authorizers and special non-profit entities can be established for this purpose. More importantly, HB 9 creates a new statwide authorizing comission. While the governor will still appoint members of the commission, the bill tries to make the commission more politically independent and requires members to "have a stated commitment to charter schooling as an effective strategy for strengthening public education."

Applicants who are denied a charter by their first choice of authorizer my also appeal to the state authorizing commission instead of the Kentucky Board of Education.

Not every application for a charter will be high-quality. Authorizers should reasonably ensure that charter applicants have demonstrated a demand for a charter in their proposed community and assembled a plan for successfully meeting the needs of students. Applicants who don't should be denied. But charter applications should never be denied simply because authorizers or appeals boards don't want families to have choices other than the local public schools.  HB 9 strikes the right balance in this regard.

Unfortunately, HB 9 walks back the statewide nature of the 2017 charter law, stipulating that in any district with less than 5,000 students, the applicant must obtain a memorandum of understanding (MOU) from the local board of education, essentially offering their approval of the application. This will never happen, of course, unless the charter school is initiated by the local board itself. There is no appeal of this component of the bill. 

Less than 25 of Kentucky's 171 school districts have more than 5,000 students enrolled, so many, many communities are going to still be without the possibility of a charter school. This provision is clearly meant to give rural lawmakers cover to suport the bill since charters will not pose any competition to their local schools.

If there is a silver lining to this concession, though, it is that the demand for a charter school in small communities is probably already low. The districts serving over 5,000 students represent more than half of Kentucky's student population. And under public school choice provisions passed last year, students can cross district lines to attend a charter school, although local education dollars may not follow with them.

I wish HB 9 would have kept the option for charter schools statewide, but it nevertheless still represents a huge step forward in giving families new public school options.

For those who also support giving families more access to nonpublic schools, HB 9 also includes a provision that states that if the courts strike down last year's Education Opportunities Accounts (EOA) law, which only applied to the 8 largest counties, that program will immediately become statewide. This is a helpful failsafe to fend off the legal attack against school choice launched by public school districts last year.

It is not, however, sufficient to strengthen the EOA law and allow it to serve a maximum number of students. So lawmakers should continue to pursue and support HB 305 and SB 50 to make sure other education options besides charter schools are also available.

Of course the public school establishment will fight hard against this charter school bill, just like they fought hard against EOA's last year. Their loudest complaint is that charters are insufficiently "accountable." But charter schools face all the same accountability, transparency, and testing requirements as traditional public schools. They are more accountable, because if parents are unsatisfied with the services they are receiving, they can walk away. Low performing, poorly operated charter schools can be shut down, whereas low performing, poorly operated traditional public schools continue to suck down taxpayer dollars forever.

The real reason the establishment hates charter schools is that charters, homeschooling, private schools, and choice in general are a threat to their education monopoly for low and middle-income families (affluent familes already have school choice). Whatever value might accrue to those students by having another education option, the establishment values the dollars they represent far more, and are willing to bar the door to keep those children from leaving.

It's time for Kentucky to finally break down that door and give every family, regardless of income or zip code, the same kind of schooling options the affluent enjoy. HB 9 and HB 305 are important steps in that direction.

The image above is from the website of East End Preparatory Academy, a successful Nashville charter school serving high numbers of low-income minority students. Kentucky charters may provide similar opportunities for some our most vulnerable students.

Related posts: