Kentucky’s governor against school election

Governor Andy Beshear (D., Ky.) Speaks during the swearing-in ceremony in Frankfort, Ky., December 10, 2019. (Bryan Woolston / Reuters)
If school-goers can overcome Andy Beshear’s veto pen, Kentucky could become a haven for freedom of education.

S.School choice Advocates in Kentucky have spent years trying to enact a program to help low- and middle-income families overcome the barriers that exist in K-12 education.

They are closer now than ever – if they can overcome Governor Andy Beshear’s right of veto.

For the first time in the history of the bluegrass state, both legislative chambers were exonerated by an Education Choice Act. No draft law had yet been clarified by a legislative committee. Despite widespread support for national and state-level selection programs, Beshear vetoed the legislation on Wednesday calling the proposal “the end of public education as we know it”.

House Bill 563, establishing Education Opportunity Accounts in Kentucky, would be one of the largest K-12 educational savings accounts (ESAs) guidelines in the nation. Kentucky’s ESAs would be available to students from low- and middle-income families living in one of the state’s eight largest counties, with low-income families a top priority.

ESAs open up a world of educational opportunities even more than conventional school vouchers. Families could use ESAs not only for one-to-one tuition, but also for tutoring, textbooks, teaching materials, online courses, special education, and more. You can even save unused funds for future education expenses. Beshear refused yesterday when he vetoed the bill.

However, all hope is not lost. Lifting the governor’s veto requires only a majority of all members of each chamber. That should be easy enough in the Kentucky Senate, which passed the measure by 21-15 votes. But the lower chamber is a different story. The Kentucky House passed the proposal with 48 to 47 votes, three votes less than the 51 required for it to be overridden. The vote was essentially on the basis of party politics. Five absences and one Democrat, Representative Al Gentry, joined the Republican majority to cast the casting vote.

One of the four missing Republican votes was Rep. John “Bam” Carney, a longtime school election advocate who originally sponsored the ESA bill. He was on leave and was battling an almost fatal pancreatitis. It would be a wonderful show of support for lawmakers to quit the job they started.

The Kentucky Association of School Superintendents has sounded the alarm that the ESA bill would “divert” funds from public schools to private schools. In other words, your view: we cannot give families a choice because they could just take it.

Superintendents play an outsized role in deep red states like Kentucky. Teachers’ unions, which are much more powerful in bluer states, have less influence when state houses have republican legislatures with the highest majority. It is the superintendents who are big employers in rural areas, who are very visible in the community, and who have big budgets, who listen to the ears of rural lawmakers.

So it’s important to take their claims seriously – and make sure we set the record straight. With regard to the diversion of funds, evidence from states that have actually conducted educational election programs overwhelmingly shows that election programs have the net effect of improving public education while saving taxpayers’ money.

When students leave public schools with an ESA, there is also the cost of their education. ESA is funded entirely from the state portion of the funding, so local property tax and federal dollars (of which there have been a lot more recently) stay in the school district. Public schools have the edge for every student.

But what about the more general concern that selection programs would harm public schools? The mountain of research on school election programs does not predict that. Over the past two decades, 28 studies have examined the impact of private school selection programs on the test scores of students who remain in public schools. These studies looked at programs in Florida, Ohio, Milwaukee, Washington, DC, and a variety of other locations. Twenty-six of these studies found that private school selection programs increased test scores for students in nearby public schools. No effect was found and only one found a decrease.

One of the most recent studies is of public education in Florida, which has the largest private school selection program in the country. The study finds that the recent massive expansion of Florida’s selection programs had a positive impact on test scores for public school students, with the largest increases being concentrated in low-income students. In fact, the study found that the greater the choice and competition, the greater the public school’s performance.

Far from “ending” public education, as Governor Beshear warned, electoral strategies help improve it.

Kentuckians have nothing to fear as they expand their educational opportunities. In fact, both the participating students and the children staying in the public school benefit from it. The only question that remains is whether their lawmakers will oppose the superintendents and the governor and enforce this program.

Jason Bedrick is the Director of Policy at EdChoice. Michael Q. McShane is the director of national research at EdChoice.

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