School-choice advocates in Kentucky have tried for years to enact a program that would help low- and middle-income families crash through the barriers that exist in K–12 education.
They’re closer now than ever before — if they can overcome Governor Andy Beshear’s veto pen.
For the first time in the Bluegrass State’s history, an educational-choice bill cleared both legislative chambers. Previously, no choice bill had even cleared a legislative committee. Despite widespread support for choice programs nationally and at the state level, 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 most expansive K–12 education-savings-account (ESA) policies 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 lower-income families getting first priority.
Even more so than traditional school vouchers, ESAs open a world of educational opportunity. Families would be able to use ESAs not just for private-school tuition, but also for tutoring, textbooks, curricular materials, online courses, special-education therapy, and more. They can even save unused funds for future educational expenses. This is what Beshear rejected yesterday, when he vetoed the bill.
All hope is not lost, however. Overriding the governor’s veto requires only a majority of all members of each chamber. That should be easy enough in the Kentucky state senate, which passed the measure by a 21–15 vote. But the lower chamber is a different story. The Kentucky House passed the proposal by a vote of 48–47, three votes shy of the 51 needed for an override. The vote was essentially along party lines, with five absences and one Democrat, Representative Al Gentry, joining the majority of Republicans to cast the deciding vote.
One of the four missing Republican votes was Representative John “Bam” Carney, a long-time champion of school choice who had originally sponsored the ESA bill. He has been on a leave of absence fighting a nearly deadly bout of pancreatitis. It would be a wonderful show of support for legislators finish the job that he started.
The Kentucky Association of School Superintendents has been sounding the alarm that the ESA bill would “divert” funds from public schools to private schools. Their view, in other words: We can’t give families a choice because they just might take it.
Superintendents play an outsized role in deep-red states like Kentucky. Teachers’ unions, who are much more powerful in bluer states, have less sway when state houses have supermajority Republican legislatures. It is the superintendents — who are large employers in rural areas, are very visible in the community, and command large budgets — who have rural legislators’ ears.
That is why it is important to take their claims seriously — and to make sure we’re setting the record straight. With respect to diverting funding, the evidence from states that have actually implemented educational-choice programs overwhelmingly shows that choice programs have the net effect of improving public education while saving taxpayers money.
When students leave public schools with an ESA, the cost to educate them leaves as well. The ESA solely affects the state portion of funding, so local property-tax dollars and federal dollars (of which there are a lot more as of late) stay in the school district. On a per-pupil basis, public schools come out ahead.
But what about the more general concern that choice programs would hurt public schools? That is not what the mountain of research on school-choice programs predicts. Over the course of the last two decades, 28 studies have examined the impact of private school choice programs on the test scores of students who remain in public schools. These studies have looked at programs in Florida, Ohio, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and a host of other locations. Twenty-six of those studies found that private-school choice programs increase the test scores of nearby public-school students. One found no effect and only one found a decline.
One of the recent studies is of public education in Florida, which has the nation’s largest private-school choice program. The study finds that the recent massive expansion of Florida’s choice programs had a positive effect on the test scores of public-school students, with the largest gains concentrated among low-income students. Indeed, the study found that the greater the choice and competition, the greater the increase in the public schools’ performance.
Far from “ending” public education, as Governor Beshear warned, choice policies help to improve it.
Kentuckians have nothing to fear from increasing educational choice. In fact, both the students who participate and the children who remain in public school stand to benefit. The only question that remains is whether their legislators will stand up to the superintendents and the governor and see this program through.
Jason Bedrick is the director of policy at EdChoice. Michael Q. McShane is the director of national research at EdChoice.
Editor’s note: This article has been edited since its original publication.