School choice looms large in governor’s race

Published 8:33 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

A pro-school choice group is spending big in the Kentucky gubernatorial race.

School Freedom Fund has spent $355,000 to date to support Republican candidate Daniel Cameron’s campaign, according to Medium Buying.

The group is also partnering with Protect Freedom PAC, a political action group associated with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, for another $5 million digital, television, mail and get out the vote program.

What is school choice?

School choice is a term supporters use to describe programs that use public, taxpayer money to allow children to attend schools outside of their district, including public and private schools.

School-choice advocates say that it gives students access to more options, and consequently, opportunities. It also incentivizes public schools to perform better in order to continue attracting students, supporters argue.

Opponents of school choice say that public education funds should only support public schools that are accountable to the state and must be open to everyone, not private schools.

Where does Kentucky stand on charter schools?

The Republican Kentucky legislature has worked to pass school choice legislation for years.

In 2017, it authorized charter schools in the state. Charter schools are publicly funded, independently run schools that are legal in 44 states.

Private groups, including nonprofits and for-profit companies, can apply to an authorizer – in Kentucky, a school board, mayor or university governing board – to open a charter school.

Charter school supporters say they give their operators more autonomy over curriculum, school hours and terms of employment. They can focus specifically on the arts or STEM courses, for example.

Opponents, including Gov. Andy Beshear, argue that charter schools shouldn’t get financial support from local and state taxes like public schools do.

Beshear said charter schools divert “taxpayer funds from our already underfunded public schools in the commonwealth, redirecting those funds to for-profit entities running charter schools” in his veto message of 2022’s House Bill 9, which set up a long term funding mechanism for charter schools, previously legal but unfunded.

He added that their boards were not accountable to the state and not held to the same standards as public schools.

Beshear’s veto was overridden, but progress on creating charter schools in Jefferson County and Northern Kentucky remains slow and uncertain.

Where does Kentucky stand on private school vouchers?

The second piece of the school choice puzzle involves so-called private school vouchers.

In 2021, the state legislature authorized a program intended to “give more flexibility and choices in education to Kentucky residents and to address disparities in educational options available to students,” according to the bill.

The program established Education Opportunity Accounts, essentially scholarships for students to use for public or private school expenses.

Private donors, including individuals and corporations, could give money to account-granting organizations, which then distributed that money into students’ EOAs, based mostly on their level of financial need.

The private donors would receive up to a 97% tax credit in exchange for their donation.

Again, Beshear vetoed the bill, stating that it would take money away from public schools because the program’s private donors would divert what would have been their state taxes to private schools.

After the legislature overrode Beshear’s veto, the law made its way through the state’s court system, ending up at the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The court unanimously ruled that the tax credit program was unconstitutional.

They wrote that it violated section 184, which states that state education taxes are intended for public schools and not any other purpose, unless the people of Kentucky decide otherwise via a constitutional amendment.

“Every dollar raised under the EOA program to fund the AGOs is raised by tax credits which diminish the tax revenue received to defray the necessary expenses of government,” the court opinion stated.

Do Cameron and Beshear support school choice?

Beshear has made his feelings about school choice very clear in his series of vetoes. But Cameron has been less clear during his general election campaign.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Republican candidate for governor, presents “Cameron’s Catch Up Plan” on Tuesday at the Jefferson County Republican Party headquarters.

When Cameron unveiled his three-pronged education plan last month, it conspicuously left out school choice measures.

Cameron has previously supported such measures, including in a 2022 interview with Spectrum News where he decried the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision.

“What this case was about, and the law educational opportunity accounts, was about just providing additional opportunities for kids across Kentucky,” he said.

“… If some well-intended and generous individual wanted to put money into an education opportunity account for parents and kids to pull out so they expand those choices for their kids, that’s something that I think we need to be appreciative of and respectful of.”

However, Cameron declined to directly answer whether he still supported school choice at his education press conference. Instead, he reiterated that his education plan was focused on learning loss during the pandemic.

Nonetheless, the School Freedom Fund is growing into one of the biggest spenders on Cameron’s side heading toward Election Day.

The Kentucky Democratic Party wrote in a statement that Cameron left charter schools and vouchers out of his education plan “because he knows how wildly unpopular they are.”