Jan. 23-29 is National School Choice Week. This is the second of a five-part series of commentaries exploring the successes and challenges of educational choice and the people fighting to make it available to all American schoolchildren. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky lawmakers seized the opportunity to pass the state’s first significant school choice bill in the spring of 2021. Although the virus caused a slew of hardships for students, parents, and schools, many of which are still emerging, it also served as the much-needed catalyst for change in education opportunities. 

Heading into the 2021 legislative session, Kentucky was one of only four states with both no charter schools and no school choice. (Kentucky does have a charter school law, but no funding mechanism, and therefore no charter schools.)

Perhaps buoyed by the numerous, and vocal, new grassroots parent groups that popped up in reaction to schools closing in 2020 and were demanding change, or perhaps the realization that schools were simply unprepared for a crisis and unable to continue to provide meaningful instruction, or even the reality that a closed Capitol building meant no teachers union protesters—whatever the reason, Kentucky lawmakers adopted a bold proposal that creates more learning opportunities for children and families in our state.

Students in Kentucky might finally be able to exercise a right they should inherently have: to choose the best school for them. No matter where they live, or how much money their parents make, Kentucky’s students should finally be able to afford the educational options they need.

Pastor Derek Wilson, founder of a small private school named Destiny Academy, says education opportunity accounts have the potential to be a game-changer for his school and community.

Destiny Academy, which is currently housed at Wilson’s church, Spirit of Love Center, in the West End of Louisville, stands among poverty-stricken neighborhoods whose black children score almost inconceivably low on standardized tests. Reading proficiency, for example, hovers around 10% or less at most nearby schools for minority and low-income students.

“The difference these scholarships could make for our kids is nothing short of life-changing. They might finally get to attend a school where they can learn and grow and thrive. They have been left behind by our schools for 40 years. It’s time to give these kids a chance,” says Wilson.

Kentucky’s school choice bill is comprehensive in its offerings for all students pre-K through 12th grade. Described by the bill sponsor, Kentucky House Majority Whip Chad McCoy:

This bill gives every child in Kentucky an opportunity to access the educational options they want and need but otherwise could not afford. Whether through transferring to another district’s school or applying for an education opportunity account scholarship for tutoring or tuition, every child now has the ability to get the education they choose.

The bill has two main parts. The first requires all districts to adopt policies that provide open enrollment so students can attend schools outside their home district. It requires all school districts to create a plan for student transfers and submit those plans to the state Department of Education. Therefore, by the 2022-23 school year, all school districts must have such plans in place so that students can start transferring to a different public school if they choose.

The other part of the bill, which has gotten the most attention by far, is the creation of education opportunity accounts. These accounts are privately funded by individual and corporate donors to nonprofit organizations that grant scholarships to children who need them to help offset the cost of tuition at private schools or for supplemental educational needs for public school students.

Supplemental educational services can include things like tutoring, transportation costs, speech and language therapy, and textbooks. The bill stipulates that only students who live in counties with 90,000 or more residents are eligible to use the education opportunity accounts for private school tuition. The rest of the bill applies to all K-12 students in the state.

In any other year, Kentucky’s new school choice law would have garnered a significant amount of attention nationally. As it was, more than a dozen other states passed similar legislation creating or expanding school choice programs, in what can only be described as an “education reform wave.”

As anticipated based on how similar laws have been challenged over the years in other states (albeit almost entirely unsuccessfully), special-interest groups have filed a lawsuit to prevent children from taking advantage of these new options. It’s almost certainly headed to the state Supreme Court, and the education opportunity accounts portion of the bill—for both private school tuition as well as supplemental education services and supplies—is on hold until the ruling. The state’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, and a nationally renowned public interest law firm, Institute for Justice, are defending the legislation.

In the meantime, Wilson, along with parents, students, and school leaders across the state, will continue to make the case that quality learning options should be available to all Kentucky families.

Tomorrow: Jonathan Butcher of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy explains why students need more education policy options in 2022.

The Daily Signal publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of The Heritage Foundation. 

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