In a bizarre reversal of the commitment lawmakers made last year to make Kentucky the 44th state with charter schools, the final state budget approved earlier this week includes no funding mechanism to allow education dollars to follow students when they choose to attend one. This makes it highly unlikely that any applications for charter schools will move forward or be approved for Fall 2018 as originally anticipated. Kentucky will be a charter state with no charter schools.
Furthermore, despite numerous assurances from legislative leaders that they would support the inclusion of scholarship tax credits either in a bill or the state budget, no such action was taken. Unless something unexpected happens during the last two days of the legislative session (April 13 and 14) Kentucky remains one of the few states with no meaningful school choice policy.
There is no good reason for this failure. Acting House Speaker David Osborne claimed that it was "inappropriate" to allow charters to proceed, "given the environment around public school funding, the shortage of public school funding." But this argument reflects a profound misunderstanding of what charter schools are and how they work. And scholarship tax credits actually have to save taxpayers money.
The budget lawmakers approved expands per pupil education funding and protects many other vital areas of K-12 education spending, so there is no good reason to deny families this option in communities where it can work, unless you just don't believe that low-income families should have choices in who educates their kids. I have trouble believing that was the case for many lawmakers, so I can only conclude that they either don't understand the basic argument for school choice, or they don't understand these policies sufficiently to defend the idea to constituents. And that's frustrating, because low-income children and their families may have lost a great educational opportunity as a result.
What are charter schools and scholarship tax credits?
Charter schools are public schools. They may not charge tuition and must take all comers. Families must choose a charter for their child; no one can be forced to attend, just as no one can be turned away. Charters are operated independently from local school districts which gives them a high degree of flexibility and capacity for innovation. In exchange for their autonomy, charters face a much higher degree of accountability. For one thing, they are entirely enrollment driven. If they cannot attract and retain students, they must close. Secondly, they face all the same testing, accountability, public safety, and civil rights rules as traditional public schools. Thirdly, they are governed by a performance contract, so that if they consistently fail to achieve certain student outcome targets, they may also be closed.
When a student chooses a charter school, some portion of the dollars allocated by the state and local governments for that child's education flows with them to their new school (the school that is actually educating them now). In most states there is a considerable disparity between the dollars charter school students receive versus those traditional public school students receive, which creates operational challenges for charters and usually requires extra fund-raising (but charging tuition is forbidden).
Charter schools aren't for everyone. Most parents are satisfied with their child's assigned public school. But no school, no matter how good it is, can effectively meet the needs of every single child and expecting them to do so places an unfair burden on hard-working teachers. Research shows that students of poverty and students of color (of which charters accept a disproportionate percentage), especially in urban areas, tend to outperform their peers when they enroll at a charter and stay for multiple years.
Scholarship tax credits, on the other hand, encourage private donations to scholarship funds that help low-income families choose a private school if they decide that's the best fit for their child. Naturally, people first assume that giving a tax credit for such a donation lowers state revenues and deprives schools of funding attached to students who no longer attend. But, in ways I’ve described elsewhere in detail, private school students actually create a major cost-savings effect for the state budget. And we can realistically estimate that only about 1% of students statewide will take advantage of such scholarships, which is well within the normal enrollment fluctuations schools experience every day.
Public employees have powerful political clout; poor families do not
Education dollars are for educating kids, and should be able to follow kids to a charter school, just like Pell grants and GI Bill dollars follow low-income students or veterans to the college of their choice, just as Medicare dollars follow patients to the doctors and hospitals of their choice. The only way to oppose letting education dollars flow in a similar way is to believe low-income families should only have access to one education provider. And it really is about denying low-income families options, because affluent families already get to exercise school choice through purchasing homes in the school zones of their preference or by utilizing private education. I'm afraid that yet again we have favored adult professional interests over the best interest of some of our most vulnerable students.
The education establishment has proven itself to be the most powerful political lobby in the state of Kentucky. Unfortunately, poor kids and their families do not have a similar kind of political clout, taxpayer funding, communication apparatus, or organization. Educators do so much for their students, and at least part of their lobbying efforts this session were sincerely done in ways they believed would indirectly be of good benefit to kids. But in the case of their opposition to school choice, the education establishment continues to miss a golden opportunity to do something especially powerful on behalf of children who are often struggling to succeed. Giving kids options doesn't undermine traditional public schools. It just provides another mechanism by which we can serve each child's unique needs.
Where we go from here
I urge Kentuckians, and especially lawmakers and educators, to learn more about school choice policies and how they work and to consider the ways we have prioritized the value of education dollars for institutions over the value of those dollars to families who have few if any choices in who educates their children. The links below provide further information that addresses these issues and especially the pervasive misunderstanding that one must be either pro-school choice or pro-public education. I also ask anyone who understands these issues to implore lawmakers to take action on behalf of Kentucky families and open up the doors to new education options.
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University and a Kentucky Board of Education member.
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