School choice is a big buzzword in education policy, and in many parts of the country, opinions on it usually run along party lines. Republicans tend to be for school choice, and Democrats against — however, that’s not the case among all of Kentucky’s candidates for governor.
School choice covers a wide range of policies that all do one thing: give students more support to attend schools outside the realm of traditional public education. Relative to other states in the South and Midwest, Kentucky has been slow to adopt school choice measures like charter schools and scholarship tax credits.
A Brief History Of School Choice In Kentucky
In 2017, Gov. Matt Bevin signed a law that would allow charter schools in the commonwealth for the first time.
“Charter schools are coming to Kentucky. I will tell you that right now. They are going to come to Kentucky, and it will be good for Kentucky,” Bevin said in his 2017 State of the Commonwealth Address.
Despite Bevin’s prediction, charter schools haven’t come yet. The General Assembly has yet to pass a way to fund them, and that issue will be on the table again this coming budget cycle.
State lawmakers have also filed a scholarship tax credit bill two years in a row, without success. The proposal would give private donors a tax break for donations that fund scholarships for kids to attend private schools. Bevin said if the General Assembly can pass that, he’d sign it.
“It’s an absolute no-brainer,” Bevin told the Lexington Herald-Leader in March. “Why wouldn’t we allow in this state, somebody who wants to help a young person get the best possible chance in life? And to be rewarded in some measure, the person giving money, with a small tax break.”
The nonpartisan Legislative Research Commission estimates that tax break could cost the state up to $21 million in lost revenue in the first year, and possibly more in future years. The bill was one that several teachers protested this spring. Although that bill failed, it’s likely that supporters will propose a new version again next year.
Bevin Stands Apart From His Republican Challengers
Bevin has been clear in his support of school choice, but in the governor’s race, he’s alone. All of his potential opponents — both Republican and Democrat — who have publicly stated their view on school choice, are opposed to it.
“Well, I can tell you this, I am not in favor of charter schools,” said Republican challenger William Woods.
Woods also said he thinks Bevin has mischaracterized the scholarship tax credit bill.
Republican Robert Goforth didn’t respond to an interview request, but his website says he opposes any public dollars going to charter schools — and that support for public education shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Republican Ike Lawrence makes no mention of school choice on his campaign website and didn’t respond to an interview request.
Democrats Unified In Opposition
Then there are the Democratic candidates, whose party typically questions school choice initiatives. Current state representative Rocky Adkins has voted and argued against charter schools in the General Assembly, and opposes the tax credit.
“My voice has been very loud and clear on this issue. I think the attempt to try to privatize public education is wrong,” Adkins said. “We’re already talking about an underfunded public education system. We’re talking about trying to generate more revenue to put it into public education.”
State Attorney General Andy Beshear is also campaigning for governor with rhetoric that school choice is a threat to public schools. He said he is “against any attempt to defund public schools” and that the scholarship tax credit is a way to do just that.
“If you want to send your kids to private schools, that’s your right,” Beshear said. “That’s a choice that many people make, and should be able to make, but you shouldn’t get out of helping to support public schools for everybody else.”
Democratic candidate Geoff Young says if the General Assembly were to pass funding for charter schools, if he was governor, he would “likely veto it.”
“The Republicans in the General Assembly are proposing laws that would cripple the public school system, and they’re doing it for purely political reasons, and it’s not good for the children of Kentucky,” Young said.
And Democrat Adam Edelen says he “outright rejects” the term school choice, “because it’s school choice for people who can afford it.”
“In a time and a place when the central challenge of our public school system is that they’re underfunded, anything that diverts resources from a public school classroom, to me, is something that we don’t have the luxury of considering,” Edelen said.
Do School Choice Initiatives Funnel Money From Public Schools?
Many of Bevin’s challengers say they want to find ways to generate new tax revenue for the state’s general fund, which would help support public schools. But whether school choice measures actually divert money that belongs to public schools is a matter of perspective.
School choice advocates, from parent groups to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, argue public money belongs to taxpayers and their children. They say these measures allow just a portion of the money the state would spend to an educate a child, to follow that child wherever her family thinks she’ll get the best education.
And that is merely the tip of Kentucky’s debate on school choice.