School Choice

Fund Students, Not Systems

Last Saturday I was greatly honored to be a guest speaker at the first statewide event sponsored by No Left Turn in Education - Kentucky. 

NLTE-KY is the state chapter of a national organization dedicated to fighting against leftist indoctrination in K-12 school curricula, promoting greater transparency in what is being taught in K-12 schools, and empowering educators and parents. Saturday's conference, called "Irrigating Deserts," took its name from a quote by C.S. Lewis in Abolition of Man: "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts."

Fellow speakers included Dr. Wilfred Reilly, associate professor of political science and Kentucky State University; Dr. Bonnie Snyder from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and Pastor Cecil Blye of More Grace Christian Academy in Louisville. You can watch the conference in its entirety here. Below is my talk, "Fund Students, Not Systems."

In the speech I try to argue why education is a highly personal public good that should be treated like other public goods where the beneficiary gets to choose their own provider. I explain why the monopoly-like character of traditional public schools aggravates its many problems. And I explain different school choice policy mechanisms (charter schools, scholarship tax credits, and vouchers) and the status of each of those policies in Kentucky.

One point I started to make but got sidetracked was distinguishing the "education establishment" from rank and file teachers. There is no doubt that the education establishment is ferociously opposed to the idea that we should fund students, not systems. The establishment - the cabal of teachers unions, administrator organizations, and school boards associations - exist for the very purpose of defending the existing system. But I meet ordinary teachers and administrators every day who (quietly) express their agreement on school choice and a variety of other education reforms. 

I think I'm clear that my commitment is to students and their families, not systems, but part of the reason I fight so hard for this issue is also for my fellow educators who have so much to gain by letting every family choose the school that is the best fit for their child.

The fight for school choice in Kentucky - an update

Education history was made in Kentucky earlier this year when the state legislature passed - over the expected veto of Gov. Andy Beshear - one of the nation's most expansive school choice laws. But now the education establishment, in a last ditch effort to preserve their monopoly, is trying to use the court system to stop the law from being implemented. In this post I'll try to provide background on this issue, where things now stand, and what comes next.

Background on HB 563: The Education Opportunities Account (EOA) Act

HB 563 did two major things: a) changed state law to make it easier for families to choose a public school outside of the district where they reside, and b) set up a tax credit that encouraged private donations to scholarship programs (called educational opportunity accounts) that help low- and middle-income Kentucky families afford a wide variety of educational services. In the final version of HB 563, those services included using the private scholarship funds to offset tuition costs to attend private schools, but only for families in Kentucky's eight largest counties. 

Private scholarship programs to help families attend private schools already exist but the demand for these scholarship dollars far outpaces the amount of donations they currently receive. HB 563 encourages more donations by providing a non-refundable tax credit to donors. You can read more about HB 563 and how it works here.

Opposition from the education establishment - and their allies

The public school establishment opposes school choice in all its forms (scholarship tax credits, charter schools, vouchers, etc.) because they believe if families actually use these policies to choose a different school for their child, they will lose funding in one way or another. Of course, taking such a stand assumes that education dollars are for propping up systems (government run schools, their employees, and their infrastructure) rather than for helping students.

Here in Bowling Green, no one EVER says we are "stealing money" from Greenview Hospital if someone uses their Medicare benefit at the Medical Center. We don't think that way because we understand that Medicare is a benefit for individuals who should get a choice in who provides their care. It should be the same for education, except that we have a massive education bureaucracy that thinks taxpayers owe THEM something regardless of whether parents are satisfied with the education they are getting. They want to preserve their monopoly on education delivery for low and middle income families (higher income families already have school choice; they can buy houses in their desired school zone or afford tuition for a private school).

But in the case of HB 563, we are not talking about a transfer of public dollars like Medicare, but rather private dollars that are freely donated by individuals to help give families additional educational choices. Read more about how the arguments of opponents of EOA's don't make sense here and why it's wrong to ever argue that school choice "steals money from public schools" here.

Nevertheless, the education establishment in Kentucky is the single most powerful lobby in Frankfort, and they exerted enormous pressure on lawmakers to keep this bill from becoming law. Ultimately HB 563 passed the Kentucky House of Representatives by only one vote. Here in Warren County where I live, not a single member of the county's House delegation voted in support of school choice. In other words, "conservative" Republicans Reps. Sheldon, Meredith, Petrie, Riley, and McPherson all voted with ultra-left Rep. Patti Minter and Governor Andy Beshear in opposing the bill (McPherson voted no in spite of having signed a pledge to support school choice legislation). Happily, Sen. Mike Wilson of Warren County is one of Kentucky's long-standing and most stalwart supporters of school choice, and both the Senate and House overrode the Governor's expected veto of the bill.

Using the courts to preserve the education monopoly

We know from the experience of other states that when the education establishment loses a fight in the legislature, their very next move is to try to stop families from exercising their new education opportunities by suing in court. That's exactly what happened next.

In August, the so-called Council for Better Education, which is essentially a collaboration of public school districts, and led by the Warren County Public Schools, filed a lawsuit to stop implementation of HB 563. Participating districts agreed to commit at least 50 cents for every student enrolled to the legal effort. For Warren County, this means approximately $8,000 of taxpayer money will be used to stop Warren County families from access schooling options other than those offered by the Warren County Schools. 

Their shameless effort met with temporary success, however. In October, Franklin Circuit's reliably biased Judge Philip Shepherd sided with the districts and ruled that the EOA provision of HB 563 was illegal under Kentucky's Constitution. Shepherd ruled that the tax credit provision is an indirect appropriation of tax dollars to religious schools, something that is specifically forbidden under Kentucky's Constitution, even though a multitude of other court cases related to scholarship tax credits, including a ruling by the United State Supreme Court, rejects this logic. Shepherd also argued that singling out the 8 largest counties for family eligibility violated Kentucky's provision against "special legislation" but applies a legal standard previously unheard of in case law related to this issue.

Lawyers with the Institute for Justice, which is representing parents in the case, have appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court and are confident based on Kentucky law and legal precedent that HB 563 will be upheld. I would love to see a hearing and rulings from the Supreme Court before the end of the calendar year, but it may well be into the next state legislative session, which begins in January, before we know the fate of the bill.

Where we go next: fund students, not systems

Regardless of when the legal challenge against EOA's is resolved, the state legislature needs to keep up its momentum with school choice. Lawmakers should expand HB 563 to make families eligible to participate statewide (which would deny the districts one of their legal arguments) and to remove a 5-year sunset provision that will make the law disappear if the legislature doesn't take action, as well as create a provision that will allow the program to expand if scholarship programs are successful in raising money for eligible students.

Beyond the EOA Act, however, lawmakers need to advance the idea that education dollars are for funding students, not systems. Education should be like every other highly personal public good that receives a public subsidy, including Medicare, Medicaid, Pell grants, and even the food stamp program, which gives beneficiaries the chance to choose a provider that best meets their needs. 

Finally, local boards of education that are using taxpayer dollars and public resources to oppose school choice should be held accountable to voters. Board members represent taxpayers and families, not the education bureaucracy, and voters need to remind them of that in the most direct kind of way.

Homeschooling surges in Kentucky

HomeschoolHomeschooling is exploding in popularity across the United States and here in Kentucky.

COVID-related school closures, mask mandates, and concerns about what students are learning may all be contributing to the exodus of families from traditional public schools. It is too soon to know whether these students may eventually return, but there are indications that many of these families are happy with their decision. The education establishment needs to pay attention, and policymakers need to find ways to give every family the opportunity to choose the school setting that works best for their children.

Data from the Kentucky Department of Education show that at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, approximately 90,000, or 14% of the state's school-aged students, were being schooled outside of the P-12 public education system. Of that 90,000, about 35,000 were homeschooling, an increase of about 16,000 students - or a whopping 84% increase compared with similar data from 2018, just three years earlier, when approximately 19,0000 children were identified homeschoolers.

Download 2021 Declaration of Participation Report Summary 062921

Private school enrollment increased during the same period, but only by about 1,000 students. Overall nonpublic school enrollment grew from about 11% to about 14% of the total student population, but almost all of that was driven by homeschooling.

There are some key things to consider when looking at these data. First, I'm comparing last year's enrollment with 2018, the most recent year for which I had a similar KDE report. It's possible that these numbers have been steadily growing the last three years and didn't necessarily skyrocket in 2020-2021. A look at the 2019-2020 data could confirm or disprove that. But given nationwide homeschooling trends, it's likely that most of the homeschooling explosion took place last year during widespread school shutdowns since across the United States about 3% of all students left the public education system and homeschooling among Black and Latino families is at an all time high.

Download 2018 Declaration of Participation PNP Homeschool Totals

It's also possible that some of these students returned to public schools this academic year. Those data aren't available yet to confirm. But my sense is that something has fundamentally changed in parents' attitudes toward the public education system.

To put it bluntly, parents are sick of the inefficiencies, adult-centered decisions, one-size-fits-all lack of innovation, and creeping leftist ideologies in far too many public schools. These were all underlying problems with the education system prior to COVID, but the pandemic also turned schools into a means for power-hungry politicians to exert illegitimate control over the system and to pander to their ideological base. 

In Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear ordered a statewide shutdown of schools early in the pandemic, and then tried to bully districts into remaining closed when school was scheduled to start in the fall. The union-controlled boards of education in large districts like the Jefferson County Public Schools chose to keep schools closed almost the entire year until pressure from the legislature resulted in a partial reopening.

This school year, Beshear continued his overreach by trying to force all schools to require children to wear masks, and then when he was reined in by the state legislature local boards of education voluntarily pandered to discredited public health entities and left the mask requirements in place, despite no meaningful scientific evidence that such mandates protect children from the spread of COVID.

Meanwhile, parents expressing legitimate concerns about how critical race theory may be influencing what is taught in schools have been labeled by the National School Boards Association and the federal government as "domestic terrorists."

To add insult to all of these injuries, the education establishment in Kentucky has fought ferociously to stop parents from having other options in where their children can attend school. Numerous districts used taxpayer money to launch a lawsuit to stop Kentucky's new education opportunities account (EOA) law, which provides privately-funded scholarships to help eligible families access education supports, including private school tuition, and other services that could potentially apply to homeschooling families.

Last week, Andy Beshear's favorite liberal judge struck down the law in a ridiculous ruling that will ultimately be overturned on appeal. It was a temporary victory for the education establishment and its schooling monopoly, and a temporary defeat for Kentucky parents and children, but in the long run families will prevail.

The exodus of families from the public schools should be a wakeup call to educators. Schools must become more responsive to parent concerns, be transparent about what students are learning, and recognize that education dollars are for students, not systems, or families will continue voting with their feet.

And policymakers should empower parents with more options. Kentucky's EOA law should be expanded, charter schools should be funded, and ultimately education funding should follow students to the school of their parents' choice, including to purchase textbooks, curricular materials, and other costs associated with homeschooling.

A sleeping giant has been awakened. It's time for Kentucky's education system to become accountable to the families it serves.

Image above is the "school room" in the former home of a homeschooling family here in Bowling Green - and the lovely house happens to be for sale! Learn more here.

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Give parents options to "woke mathematics"

In my latest op-ed for Commonwealth Educational Opportunities with co-author John Garen, now published in multiple newspapers across the state, we highlight a new "anti-racist" math program in the Jefferson County Public Schools. We contrast this with the approach to rigorous math instruction made most famous by Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School, featured in the movie Stand and Deliver.

We argue that parents deserve to be able to choose a school for their children that reflects their preferences when it comes to things as important as math instruction:

If Jefferson County Public Schools won’t provide a high-quality math curriculum to all its students, families deserve other schooling options. Let education funding follow students to the school of their family’s choice. If families want “woke” mathematics, they can get it from JCPS. Or if they want the kind of rigorous mathematics that transformed lives at Garfield High School, they can get it from a school that will actually provide it.

Read the whole thing here.


Kentucky’s SBDM Councils and critical race theory

The national controversy over critical race theory (CRT) and how it is presented in K-12 schools has come to Kentucky. (See my discussion of Bill Request 60, which would prohibit key components of CRT, and why this whole issue is a source of legitimate concern for everyone). 

The Gallatin County Board of Education recently became the first district in Kentucky to try to ban the teaching of CRT in its schools. I haven’t been able to obtain the precise wording of the board’s resolution or action, but Superintendent Larry Hammond issued a statement explaining the board’s decision:

Gallatin County Board of Education feels strongly that individual student needs remain a priority in all aspects of planning and service delivery.  The Board further expects and promotes student needs being met equitably.  Such examples would include contracts to provide increased services to meet mental and behavioral health issues of students without respect of sex, race or socio-economic status.  The Board also believes no individual is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive” due to their race or sex, “whether consciously or unconsciously”.   Agenda item VI.I. from the June 15 BOE meeting “Discussion/Action to Ban Critical Race Theory in Gallatin County School District” was a statement to affirm the belief and commitment to ensure every child’s needs will be met.  Furthermore, the effort was to not create greater divisions among students and staff through the promotion of CRT.

It is not clear to me, however, that a local board of education can legally stop a local school from adopting a curriculum or instructional materials that include CRT’s controversial claims. 

This is because Kentucky’s law establishing School Based Decision Making (SBDM) Councils gives SBDM’s near total authority over such decisions. 

SBDM Councils are composed of 3 teachers elected by teachers in the school and 2 parents elected by parents of children in the school. If a school has minority students constituting more than 8% of its enrollment and the largest minority group isn’t already represented among the elected SBDM teachers and parents, additional teacher and parent members may be added, but the proportions of teachers to parents must be maintained. The school principal serves as chair of the council, which seeks consensus decisions but may operate by majority vote if consensus cannot be achieved. 

You can read the full statute on the SBDM Council’s composition and duties here

Among the Council’s responsibilities, outlined in section 2(g), is the following:

The school council shall determine which textbooks, instructional materials, and student support services shall be provided in the school. Subject to available resources, the local board shall allocate an appropriation to each school that is adequate to meet the school's needs related to instructional materials and school-based student support services, as determined by the school council. The school council shall consult with the school media librarian on the maintenance of the school library media center, including the purchase of instructional materials, information technology, and equipment;

The Office of Educational Accountability, charged with enforcement of SBDM law and regulation, has interpreted this to mean that school and district administrators may not usurp the Council’s authority when it comes to choosing curriculum and instructional materials. 

In one relevant instance, former Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe and two middle school principals were censured and forced to participate in additional SBDM governance training when several schools in the district adopted the Summit Learning curriculum without the express approval and involvement of the SBDM Council. 

While I am not aware of specific instances where local leaders tried to prohibit a school from adopting a curriculum or instructional materials (I’d welcome information on this from readers who might know for sure), the logic would seem to extend in that direction also: a local board of education cannot tell an SBDM Council what curriculum it may or may not have. 

[Update, 6/21: I'm not an attorney, but a Kentucky Supreme Court case from 1995, Board of Education of Boone County v. Bushee, seems to make it clear that when there is a conflict between the autonomy of an SBDM and the authority of the local school board, unless the board’s greater authority is explicitly allowed for in state law, the SBDM prevails:

The above examination of these statutes clearly convinces this court that each participating group in the common school system has been delegated its own independent sphere of responsibility. State government is held accountable for providing adequate funding and for the overall success of the common school system. The local boards are responsible for the administrative functions of allocating funding, managing school property, appointing the superintendent, and fixing the compensation of employees. The councils are responsible for the site based issues, including but not limited to, determining curriculum, planning instructional practices, selecting and implementing discipline techniques, determining the composition of the staff at the school, and choosing textbooks and instructional materials.

Emphasis added in the above.]

Under Kentucky law, if parents or citizens want to help shape what gets taught in an individual school, they have to appeal to the SBDM Council. 

Most Kentuckians are probably unaware of the work of SBDM Councils and their important responsibilities, which also include hiring school principals (with the superintendent serving as a Council member just for this purpose) and assigning personnel based on the staffing allocation received from the local board of education.

By and large SBDM Council members do their work with no fanfare and little appreciation. In my personal experience the teachers and parents who serve on councils work hard and sincerely want the best for students. In some schools parents have to be actively recruited (begged?) to run for Council.

But in most cases SBDM Councils tend to reinforce the status quo and operate according to the principal’s and teachers’ agendas. Parents, by statute outnumbered on councils, often lack the technical and cultural knowledge about how schools work and defer to teachers on key decisions.

Of greatest concern, non-parents have no representation on councils at all, despite their sizable responsibilities related to the deployment of public resources. They are largely unaccountable to the general public. If an SBDM Council wanted to adopt a controversial curriculum over widespread public opposition, there would be literally nothing the public - or the locally-elected board of education - could do about it.

Authors I greatly admire (see here and here) have argued that, despite the serious flaws in CRT assumptions, state-level bans on teaching critical race theory in schools is a form of big government overreach and sets a dangerous precedent.

I’m sympathetic to those arguments and believe that generally these issues are best handled at a local level. Parents and citizens must be far more aware and involved in SBDM Councils and insist on transparency for what is being taught in local schools.

But the flaws in Kentucky’s unique governance structure raise serious questions about how accountable SBDM Councils really are and what can be done if they override the will of the public. And that’s not to say that a strongly worded resolution from a local board of education wouldn’t carry a lot of weight. But for all these reasons Bill Request 60 and similar measures have started a valuable conversation about this topic.

Of course this also occurs at a time when some Kentucky school districts are suing taxpayers to stop the implementation of the state’s new school choice law. The education establishment can’t have it both ways. You can’t defend a system that isn’t really accountable to the public when it comes to curriculum and instruction and then insist that many families can have no other options.

Personally I’m happy for any school to openly teach anything it wants - as long as every family has the right to choose another school for their children. 

Related posts:

KY finally crashes through the education establishment barricades, becomes a school choice state

After years of hard work on the part of lawmakers, educators, and parent activitists, Kentucky has finally passed a school choice law. HB 563 was vetoed by Gov. Andy Beshear, but last night both houses of the state legislature overrode his veto and the bill will go to Secretary of State Michael Adams' desk for his signature and will become law. Kentucky is one of the last states in the nation to adopt a law addressing school choice.1

What the law does

HB 563 includes two major provisions. First, the law makes it easier for families to send their children to a public school that is outside of the district where they reside. Previously all such moves were carefully dictated by inter-district transfer agreements that gave larger districts an outsized advantage, allowing them to bar the door to keep a certain number of students from leaving each year. The new law creates greater balance by giving students access to any school with an open seat, and state education dollars will flow with them to their new public school.

The second provision of HB 563 will help establish education opportunity accounts (EOA's). These privately-funded scholarships will assist families with incomes up to 175% of the federal free-and-reduced lunch eligibilty amount to access a wide variety of services, including partial or full tuition, in both public and nonpublic schools. A non-refundable tax credit encourages donations to these accounts, with priority given to

Continue reading "KY finally crashes through the education establishment barricades, becomes a school choice state" »

Unleashing Parent Power in Education

No left turn

Last night I had the opportunity to give a virtual talk sponsored by the Kentucky chapter of Americans for Prosperity on the topic of "Unleashing Parent Power in Education." The talk itself isn't available to share, but I wanted to briefly summarize my comments, which I used as a springboard to introduce several parent-led education reform initiatives. My goal was to provide an analysis of the ways in which the American system of education tends to disempower many parents, and to share some ideas about how we might reverse that pattern and give parents far more influence and voice in the education of their own children.

The COVID crisis, and especially the long-term shuttering of schools, has revealed to many ordinary parents and citizens just how inefficient our educational system is, how much it struggles to respond quickly to changing circumstances, and how it inevitably turns toward one-size-fits-all solutions. I'm not at all suggesting that teachers haven't worked hard over the last year. I certainly know how much many of them have worried over how to provide for their students' learning needs. But teachers themselves are hamstrung by the massive bureaucratic structures that make it virtually impossible for innovative and well-meaning teachers to easily adapt instructional delivery to new challenges.

This organizational recalcitrance is directly related to the fact that educational institutions function as a monopoly for most parents. While affluent families can often get some relief by buying houses in the school districts or attendance zones of their choice, most families have to take whatever educational program the local district offers them based on their zip code. But the last year has revealed how even affluent parents have little power, especially in large, unionized school districts. Despite overwhelming evidence that schools can safely open, our largest urban districts have mostly refused to consider even a hybrid learning model. Time and again we see that the interests of employees and their ideological agendas are the single biggest determinate of what happens in schools. The result is that, for all of the well-intended efforts and massive expenditures of money, the education system does not work for many families. 

What would it mean to shift some of the power and influence in education toward parents and ordinary taxpayers? First, it would mean enacting meaningful school choice measures so that every family, regardless of their income, could have more options in who educates their children and how. Currently HB 149, which encourages private donations to Education Opportunity Accounts that would help eligible families access private school options, is sitting in the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee. Lawmakers need to be encouraged to push this bill across the finish line and make the first meaningful dent in the monopoly power currently enjoyed by government schools. And then a host of other school choice provisions should be considered, including open district enrollment, and charter schools.

But even within the existing structures of education there is more that could be done to empower parents, including reforming Kentucky's Scho0l-Based Decision-Making Councils. Under current law, teacher members of SBMD councils outnumber parents, and non-parent citizens have no voting representation on councils at all. This means that SBDM Councils are essentially accountable to no one but the certified teachers in a school building, even though they wield sole authority over curriculum decisions and outsized influence over the hiring of school principals.

Finally, we need active, well-informed, and energized parent groups to advocate for meaningful education reform and district accountability. Every community deserves a vibrant coalition of parents and community members willing to work with educators to hold schools more accountable to parent concerns, engage in lobbying school boards and lawmakers, and ultimately organize and support candidates to run for school board seats and give the entire community as much say over what happens in schools as district employees currently enjoy. 

Happily, several such parent organizations have been organized here in Kentucky, many of them enjoying a surge of interest because of the prolonged, COVID-related school shutdowns. Last night I was able to introduce representatives from and highlight the work of the following groups:

  • No Left Turn in Education. NLTE is a national organization of parents and educators assembled to resist the relentless push to impose leftist, critical theory ideology in American schools. Countless examples of this trend abound, and NLTE's Kentucky chapter will work to shine a light on how this is happening here, and how teachers, students, parents, and community members can respond.
  • Kentucky Parents Network represents a coalition of parents advocating for school choice.
  • Parent Power Kentucky arose from several local organizations formed to encourage schools to reopen for business. Parent Power will serve as a coalition of parental advocacy groups focused on choice, reform, supports for students with special needs, and direct advocacy to lawmakers and local boards of education.

I encourage educators and others to follow these groups on social media and offer your financial support and gifts of time and talent to help make them successful.

On a final note, I am sometimes asked why, as someone whose career is primarily in service to public education, I spend so much more time advocating for families and reform instead of the institutional interests of schools and districts. My answer is that the education establishment, directly funded by taxpayers themselves, is the most powerful lobby in state capitols, using its enormous influence to prevent meaningful reform and often keep parents disempowered. I don't want to choose sides between parents and schools, between communities and districts, because I believe that in the long run, doing what is right for students will work out to be in the best interests of educators as well, though it may mean we have to significantly change the way we do business. 

For that reason, I want to give as much encouragement and support to these parent groups as I can, and I hope others will also.


Will Republican lawmakers squander this golden opportunity for school choice?

Earlier this week the online newspaper Kentucky Today published an opinion piece in which I argued that, after the recent blow-out election benefitting Republicans in the state legislature, the time has never been better to promote school choice:

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.

I go on to argue for three different school choice policies that other states currently enjoy and Kentucky should quickly adopt: a) open district enrollment, b) scholarship tax credits, and c) charter schools. Of course, the education establishment will ferociously oppose all of these mechanisms for giving parents more options in who educates their children:

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...

[E]very 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.

Read the whole thing here.

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The fight for school choice in Kentucky goes on

The Kentucky General Assembly is wrapping up its legislative session, and for two years in a row, lawmakers have utterly failed Kentucky families on the issue of expanding education options. But the lonely champions of parental, student, and teacher empowerment will carry on their struggle against the education establishment until every family has the opportunity to choose a school that best meets their child's needs. And I'll proudly count myself among them.

After passing a charter school law in 2017, lawmakers refused to approve a funding formula that would actually allow charter schools to open in Kentucky. And while we had great support in the state Senate and among House leadership for scholarship tax credits, a handful of House Republicans prevented the bill from coming to a vote, despite solid survey data demonstrating widespread voter support for the policy. 

The education establishment proved itself again to be the most powerful, well-organized lobby in Frankfort. Even though they exercised no meaningful impact in the last statewide election cycle, and even though teachers are a diverse group that do not speak with one voice on any issue, some Republican lawmakers remain fearful of voting against the wishes of superintendents and educator groups. And thus Kentucky remains one of only a handful of states with no meaningful school choice policies. Families may not choose a charter school, districts strictly control access to traditional public schools, and a vast number of families are unable to afford tuition when a private school might best meet the needs of their child.

The education establishment fought ferociously against charters and scholarship tax credits, voicing a number of specious and sometimes blatantly false claims about these policies, but their highest-leverage argument was that education in Kentucky is grossly under-funded, and therefore we cannot "afford" to let parents choose an alternative to the local public schools.

I agree that we need to invest more money in education in Kentucky, and in an upcoming post I'll explore the complexities of that issue. But I reject the argument that we can't "afford" policies that help parents choose their child's school, in large part because I reject the idea that education dollars are for institutions. They are for the benefit of students, and within the realm of public schools (which includes charters), those dollars should be able to follow kids to the school of their choice, within parameters of accountability established in well-considered law and regulation. In this way, education should be like other highly-personal public goods such as health care and higher education (see more in the related links below about this argument).

I greatly antagonized many fellow educators this legislative session by publicly pointing out that their core goal here is to maintain their functional monopoly on education delivery. They seek to bar the door from families choosing another education provider because they place a greater value on the education dollars those children represent to their schools. I don't question the sincerity of their motives in doing so. They appear to truly believe such a monopoly is the best method for providing an equitable, high-quality education for all students. I just fundamentally disagree

And I will continue to do so. I will continue to work and speak and write in support of policy and advocacy groups demanding high-quality charter schools, scholarship tax credits, and the right of students to enroll in any public school with an open seat. Even when it brings ridicule and scorn and personal attacks from people who I consider colleagues and allies and with whom I share common overall goals. It's a sad commentary that so many educators regard those who have differing opinions about school choice or pension reform or other issues as enemies of public education. There's an awful lot of room for people of goodwill to believe in different strategies for achieving the same goal.

Interestingly, I never intended for school choice to be my signature professional issue. I spend most of my professional energy training the next generation of public school administrators and conducting research into leadership and school improvement. I have deep passions for curriculum, personalized learning, better assessment practices, and helping educators develop reflective tools for improving their craft. These are the topics I'd much prefer to spend my time on.

But the fundamental injustice at work in our educational delivery system keeps me fighting on for school choice, even when it comes at some cost to me professionally. More than two decades in this business has proven to me that no school, no matter how good, can be a perfect fit for every child. Empowering families of modest means to select their child's school is not only good for kids; it's also liberating to teachers and school leaders who can be far more innovative in their approaches to curriculum and instruction instead of relentlessly being pushed into a one-size-fits-all system. But first and foremost it's about giving lower-income children opportunities they otherwise cannot access.

Contrary to anti-school choice rhetoric, there is no well-funded, organized lobby on behalf of the families who are the primary beneficiaries of school choice policies, which is why it's so difficult to complete against the powerful education establishment. Those families need a voice. And on this issue they need a voice from educators willing to stand up to their own colleagues and institutions and challenge their assumptions and arguments.

I'll try my best to always do so with civility, seeking common ground wherever possible, but without compromising the fundamental conviction that every family deserves to decide who educates their children. And I welcome every Kentuckian, educators included, to join me.

See you in Frankfort.

Usual disclaimer: All views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else affiliated with Western Kentucky University (where I am professor of educational administration, leadership, and research), or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I am a member and chairman of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Committee).

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How much do scholarship tax credits "cost" public schools?

The battle to give more Kentucky families choices in who educates their children rages on, as lawmakers continue to consider a scholarship tax credit bill, introduced to the legislature this year as HB 205/SB 118. Eighteen other states have such a policy, which creates a tax credit that encourages private donations to scholarship that help eligible families pay tuition at non-public schools. 

I've written extensively about how this policy works, how it does not threaten public education, how it does not violate the state or federal constitutions, and how it uses private money to give more families the chance to find a school that best meets their child's needs, the same kind of privilege affluent parents enjoy every day. You can read some of my most recent posts on these topics here, here, and here.

As to be expected, the education establishment in Kentucky has ferociously opposed scholarship tax credits, arguing that education is underfunded and a reduction in state revenues would further harm public schools, despite an abundance of analyses that show such policies work out to be revenue neutral in other states. Superintendents have argued that they would be terribly burdened even if only a handful of students left their assigned public school because they have fixed costs that cannot easily be absorbed.

Many of these arguments are condensed in a blog post by Anna Baumann of the Kentucky Economic Policy Center, an organization that opposes school choice policies. Ms. Baumann makes three major claims: 1) the cost savings of scholarship tax credits depends on the number of students switching from public to nonpublic schools; 2) schools will suffer because of the "fixed costs" argument noted above if students do switch, and 3) the income eligibility level for families applying for scholarships under this proposal is too high.

In this post I'd like to respond to some of these specific claims. As always, let me be clear that views I express on this website are mine alone do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone else affiliated with Western Kentucky University (where I am professor of educational administration, leadership, and research) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I am a member and chair of the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Committee).

First, regarding switchers, this issue is only relevant for calculating cost savings at the state level (not the district level). What we know from other states is the switcher rate does not impact the bottom line on state-level fiscal impact - which is that the state winds up saving money in the long run because of this tax credit. And that is the case regardless of whether students switch or choose private school from the kindergarten forward. Any time families opt out of public schools, you generate a net savings because these families continue to pay taxes but the state doesn't have to educate their kids. Currently there are about 72,000 kids in Kentucky who attend private or homeschools. If they all showed up tomorrow wanting a public education, we'd need almost an extra $300 million a year. That's almost 3% of the state's general fund. Scholarship tax credits do not drain revenues from public schools that would otherwise be used to increase education spending.

At the district level things get a little more complicated, because when a local school is no longer educating a student, they no longer get state education dollars (SEEK funds) for the student (and shouldn't; they aren't educating him/her any more). Note that every argument that follows from the anti-choice crowd is essentially based on the idea that these students shouldn't be allowed to leave, because this will generate a loss of revenue for the district. I reject that kind of thinking outright.

But taking the fact of lost revenues seriously, it is still unclear what impact this has on students who stay. If large numbers of students leave, then you actually increase the likelihood of the district being able to reap savings through reduced fixed expenses (cuts to personnel and other large overhead costs), which contradicts Ms. Baumann's argument. And if large numbers leave, you don't have a school choice problem; you have an internal problem to the school that is causing so many families to want another alternative. Moreover, we know that per-pupil calculations are the most relevant revenue/cost issue at hand for schools (rather than fixed costs) because that's why we fund schools based on enrollment.

If small numbers of students leave (which is much more likely), on the other hand, then we're talking about management adjustments that districts can and should be able deal with all the time. You can, in fact, reduce some expenses when small numbers of students leave (fewer software licenses, instructional materials, etc.), but unless you're willing to argue that no student should ever be able to leave a school, districts must have the management sense to deal with small enrollment fluctuations. And they do.

When I looked at this issue in the past, I tried to apply some of this to a specific example: the Warren County School district, one of my two local districts. For FY 16, that district had $122 million in revenues; only $47 million of that was from SEEK (Kentucky's state per pupil educational allotment), or 38.5%. 

Warren County has just under 15,000 students. It's anybody's guess as to how many students would leave for a private school if a scholarship opportunity presented itself thanks to scholarship tax credits, but currently there appear to be less than 1,000 students attending private schools in the county. Let's be extremely generous and assume that STC increases local private school enrollment by 10%. That means no more than 100 students leave the district (this isn't taking in account students who may leave other nearby districts instead). Warren County's FY 16 adjusted SEEK allocation was $3,647 per student. So SEEK funding for the district would decline by about $364,700...which accounts for only .002% of the district's revenues. And in a district of 15,000, I suspect total enrollment fluctuates by far more than 100 from year to year.

Perhaps I have more faith in our superintendents' abilities to manage such tiny budget changes than they do themselves. And if my math is incorrect here, I'm sure helpful readers will point that out. But even if my calculations are slightly off, the point remains: scholarship tax credits are not going to decimate the budgets of local schools.

What Ms. Baumann's analysis also doesn't consider in terms of costs at the local level is that parents who use private schools still pay local school taxes, partially offsetting any "loss" to the local district (which wasn't due those SEEK dollars to begin with!). This is an incalculable number of course, because it's based on the amount of taxes paid by each family. But it further illustrates the fact that the costs to districts for "switchers" or "never users" is small and should be something they can deal with. Districts are never in a position to do anything about affluent families who choose another option. It's only when it comes to policies like this that they try to stop families of more modest means from leaving. Which brings me to the last point of Ms. Baumann's blog post.

Scholarships funded by the private donations encouraged by HB 205 are needs based. Dollars go to the neediest families first and the bill puts kids with special needs, foster care kids, and kids on free or reduced lunch first in line. If money is left over, scholarships may then go to families whose income rises to 200% of the FRL level (remember this is all privately-donated money). Typically these families don't need full scholarships, but may need a little extra help making the full tuition payment, especially if they have more than one child in school. We can get into endless arguments about who is "upper income," but the fact is that, in my old school district, two married teachers with two kids are too "rich" to qualify for any scholarship help under this bill after just 5 years of teaching service if they also happen to have Master's degrees.

Conventional wisdom holds (and I agree), that teachers are underpaid, and yet the Courier-Journal reports the average Kentucky teacher salary is just under $54,000 per year ($63K in JCPS); the vast majority of teacher households would never be eligible for even a tiny bit of scholarship help under this proposal. The bottom line is that scholarship tax credits benefit families who otherwise could never access these schooling options.

At the end of the day, the argument that we should oppose school choice because education is underfunded is an excuse to defend local school districts' monopoly on education delivery. Scholarship tax credits will not cause damage to public schools, and ultimately the education establishment is always going to oppose school choice policies, no matter how much we increase education spending. Philosophically, many superintendents and teacher groups are just opposed to giving families choices in who educates their kids. They can't do anything about affluent families who always have the resources to make choices for their children, so they oppose policy mechanisms that help those who don't.

To help these families we'll always have to do it over the opposition of educator groups. That's a shame, but that's the way it is, and I'm willing to stand up to colleagues I admire and with whom I otherwise share so many common goals, and disagree.

Update, 3/8/2019: I keep hearing repeated arguments that scholarship tax credits are somehow a violation of either Kentucky's Constitution or the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. This allegation seems to be premised on the notion that tax credits use "public" money to support private, religious schools. 

If the opponents of scholarship tax credits think this policy uses "public" money to support religious schools, then I hope they didn't take a charitable deduction on their taxes for any donations to their church or other religious organizations. By their own logic, this, too, would be using "public" money to support religion. But it is not of course.

If you don't want to allow a tax credit because you simply don't like what people are going to do with their own money if they get to keep more of it (in this case, use it to help kids afford private school tuition), that's at least a logical position. But it is NOT the same thing as using "public" money to support religious schools, anymore than your charitable deduction for church donations is. (Which is why scholarship tax credits have withstood multiple constitutional challenges).

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