This year, the Kentucky General Assembly created one of the most expansive educational choice programs in the country when it passed the Education Opportunity Account (EOA) Act. In building the Commonwealth’s first educational choice law, lawmakers created a program that will give parents access to privately-donated funds to design a learning environment as unique as their students.
The EOA Act was carefully created to serve low- and middle-income families who felt the traditional school system wasn’t giving their children the best shot at reaching for their full potential.
When implemented, it is expected that more than 400,000 Kentucky students will be eligible to apply for assistance under the program. That means a parent could receive funds to hire a tutor, enroll their children in accelerated programs and even purchase textbooks and uniforms.
In Kentucky’s most populous counties, parents would be able to use EOA Act resources to cover tuition at a non-public school, which would include faith-based schools. The EOA Act represented a major first step toward leveling the playing field between lower- and middle-income families and their wealthier peers who can freely choose public and non-public options.
Unfortunately, a small group of Kentucky public school districts challenged the program and are trying to deny families the fruits of their hard-fought victories for educational choice. Earlier this month, Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Philip Shepherd held that the EOA Act is unconstitutional.
At EdChoice Kentucky, we firmly disagree with the ruling. We believe the EOA Act fits squarely within Kentucky law and has the potential to help thousands of students to receive the education they deserve. The ruling was disappointing, but it was not the end of our work to help students move to the head of their class. The decision will be appealed soon and hopefully reinstated in time for students to benefit in 2022.
Kentucky’s educational choice program may be new, but that doesn’t mean it’s untested. These programs are widely popular in Kentucky and nationwide. More than 20 other states have enacted similar programs to remarkable results. No state supreme court has ever found one unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court even upheld similar programs and dismissed some of the same types of arguments Judge Shepherd relied upon in his ruling.
The ruling might delay the support Kentucky parents are calling for, but it won’t stop it. Educational choice is coming to Kentucky.
Of the many issues with Judge Shepherd’s ruling, one particular claim sticks out as being representative of the larger debate at hand. While he acknowledges that the EOA program would benefit many Kentucky students, Judge Shepherd seemingly suggests that these students wouldn’t need a choice if only the legislature put more funding into public schools.
This type of logic presumes that all children are alike and gives little weight to what parents might believe is in the best interest of their children. Parents know their children and should be in a position to find the classroom where they will thrive regardless of their income. They should be able to weigh a variety of considerations in making that choice, including how the school will impact their children’s academic, social, spiritual and character development.
Further, the Court’s reasoning presents a false choice. Giving families a choice in education doesn’t prevent public schools from succeeding. To the contrary, the vast majority of research shows that public school student outcomes have improved in states with educational choice policies. It is common sense: Students do better when parents are able to choose the educational setting that best meets their child’s needs.
It is also worth noting that the EOA Act did not take one penny from Kentucky’s education budget. In fact, the Kentucky General Assembly dramatically increased public school funding at the same time that they passed the EOA Act.
Even as the fight to reinstate the EOA Act continues in the courts, EdChoice Kentucky will keep working to get our schools, local nonprofits and parents ready for the day that this program is available. We will keep advocating until our next generation has access to the opportunities to help them succeed.
Perhaps more than ever, parents are engaged in the conversations surrounding what and how their children learn. Our work to give families more choice is only just getting started, and we can’t let up now. We must do all that we can to ensure that the EOA program is implemented and expanded where needed. This will only happen with your help.
Please stay engaged by signing up for EdChoice KY’s newsletter at www.educateky.com and following us on social media. This is only the beginning.
Andrew Vandiver is the associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky and the president of EdChoice Kentucky.