‘We’re very optimistic’: Education reform advocate explains the path forward for school choice in Kentucky

Despite having fallen behind the school choice wave, Kentucky education reform advocates are confident change is right around the corner.

The Bluegrass State is one of just five states without…

Despite having fallen behind the school choice wave, Kentucky education reform advocates are confident change is right around the corner.

The Bluegrass State is one of just five states without charter schools, even though a law allowing charters was passed in 2017.

Jim Waters, president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, explained the 2017 charter bill wasn’t provided with a funding mechanism. When a 2022 measure provided funds and plans for pilot charters, public school activists decided to sue.

“[Superintendents] of the public education system, supported by the teachers’ unions and other left-wing groups, sued to stop that bill,” Waters told The Lion. “The left [wants] the status quo of failing and mediocre public education. They don’t want parents to have any options here.”

Only 46% of Kentucky’s 4th graders are proficient in reading, and 39% are proficient in math. The outlook is worse for 8th graders, who exhibit 44% and 37% proficiency, respectively.

The Bluegrass Institute recently released a report proving charter schools improve academic outcomes and can even erase achievement gaps between white and black students. The study found black charter school students in Georgia and Florida not only outscored Kentucky’s black students, but even surpassed Kentucky’s white students at traditional public schools.

The charter school lawsuit was heard in a Kentucky circuit court in June, and Waters said he expects it to end up in the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The Council for Better Education, an anti-school-choice group, claimed charter schools don’t meet the definition of “common school” under the state constitution. However, Aaron Silletto, an attorney with the state attorney general’s office, argued charters are “part and parcel of the common school system.”

This isn’t the first time school choice has gone to court in Kentucky.

The state tried to start a tax-credit education savings account (ESA) program in 2021, but it was challenged by the same groups and ultimately struck down by the Kentucky Supreme Court, which concluded section 184 of the state Constitution dictates education funds can only be used for “common school education,” leaving private schools out.

This section is one of many variations of the Blaine Amendment, enshrined in 38 state constitutions, which has an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant history.

But school choice advocates in Kentucky won’t let Blaine stop them, and are determined to amend their state constitution.

“We’re very optimistic about getting [a constitutional amendment] on the ballot,” Waters told The Lion. “There’s strong support in the legislature for it.

“Our biggest challenge will be educating people and really dispelling the myths that the other side will throw at us, because they’re going to pour a lot of money into this campaign. There will be a lot of Washington, D.C., groups that get involved because this will be the primary school choice battle in the country.”  

If advocates are successful, Kentucky will be just the second state to repeal a Blaine Amendment. Louisiana repealed its Blaine Amendment in 1974 – almost 100 years after it was first enacted.  

Notably, four of the states with universal school choice – Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, and West Virginia – have never had Blaine Amendments.  

The upcoming gubernatorial election could make a big difference in Kentucky’s battle for school choice.  

Democrat incumbent Gov. Andy Beshear is running against Republican Daniel Cameron, the state’s first African American attorney general.  

If Cameron wins, “we will have a strong school choice supporter who will be out there pounding the bully pulpit, educating people, making people aware and supporting this,” Waters said. “If Andy Beshear wins, he of course was elected largely by the influence of the money of the teachers’ unions, so we know where he’s going to be on this issue.” 

Beshear has been criticized for the hypocrisy of sending his own children to private school while opposing school choice for Kentucky families.  

“So, the big advantage of having a Republican governor will be that they will be the best spokesman and they will be able to influence a lot of people in support of school choice,” Waters continued.  

Even if Beshear were reelected, he wouldn’t have the power to keep the constitutional amendment off the ballot.  

“The legislature votes on constitutional amendments and, unlike regular legislation, this bill will not go to the governor. He cannot veto this,” Waters explained. “We’re very confident [the legislature] is going to get this on the ballot.” 

The gubernatorial election will take place this November, but the constitutional amendment can’t go on the ballot until 2024, giving the governor a year to campaign either for or against school choice.  

But state lawmakers share Waters’ confidence that school choice is coming to Kentucky.  

“We’re going to have school choice, and it’s going to be robust,” House Majority White James Nemes, R-Louisville, promised at a recent Americans for Prosperity event.