The Kentucky General Assembly is wrapping up its legislative session, and for two years in a row, lawmakers have utterly failed Kentucky families on the issue of expanding education options. But the lonely champions of parental, student, and teacher empowerment will carry on their struggle against the education establishment until every family has the opportunity to choose a school that best meets their child's needs. And I'll proudly count myself among them.
After passing a charter school law in 2017, lawmakers refused to approve a funding formula that would actually allow charter schools to open in Kentucky. And while we had great support in the state Senate and among House leadership for scholarship tax credits, a handful of House Republicans prevented the bill from coming to a vote, despite solid survey data demonstrating widespread voter support for the policy.
The education establishment proved itself again to be the most powerful, well-organized lobby in Frankfort. Even though they exercised no meaningful impact in the last statewide election cycle, and even though teachers are a diverse group that do not speak with one voice on any issue, some Republican lawmakers remain fearful of voting against the wishes of superintendents and educator groups. And thus Kentucky remains one of only a handful of states with no meaningful school choice policies. Families may not choose a charter school, districts strictly control access to traditional public schools, and a vast number of families are unable to afford tuition when a private school might best meet the needs of their child.
The education establishment fought ferociously against charters and scholarship tax credits, voicing a number of specious and sometimes blatantly false claims about these policies, but their highest-leverage argument was that education in Kentucky is grossly under-funded, and therefore we cannot "afford" to let parents choose an alternative to the local public schools.
I agree that we need to invest more money in education in Kentucky. But I reject the argument that we can't "afford" policies that help parents choose their child's school, in large part because I reject the idea that education dollars are for institutions. They are for the benefit of students, and within the realm of public schools (which includes charters), those dollars should be able to follow kids to the school of their choice, within parameters of accountability established in well-considered law and regulation. In this way, education should be like other highly-personal public goods such as health care and higher education.
I greatly antagonized many fellow educators this legislative session by publicly pointing out that their core goal here is to maintain their functional monopoly on education delivery. They seek to bar the door from families choosing another education provider because they place a greater value on the education dollars those children represent to their schools. I don't question the sincerity of their motives in doing so. They appear to truly believe such a monopoly is the best method for providing an equitable, high-quality education for all students. I just fundamentally disagree.
And I will continue to do so. I will continue to work and speak and write in support of policy and advocacy groups demanding high-quality charter schools, scholarship tax credits, and the right of students to enroll in any public school with an open seat. Even when it brings ridicule and scorn and personal attacks from people who I consider colleagues and allies and with whom I share common overall goals. It's a sad commentary that so many educators regard those who have differing opinions about school choice or pension reform or other issues as enemies of public education. There's an awful lot of room for people of goodwill to believe in different strategies for achieving the same goal.
I never intended for school choice to be my signature professional issue. I spend most of my professional energy training the next generation of public school administrators and conducting research into leadership and school improvement. I have deep passions for curriculum, personalized learning, better assessment practices, and helping educators develop reflective tools for improving their craft. These are the topics I'd much prefer to spend my time on.
But the fundamental injustice at work in our educational delivery system keeps me fighting on for school choice, even when it comes at some cost to me professionally. More than two decades in this business has proven to me that no school, no matter how good, can be a perfect fit for every child. Empowering families of modest means to select their child's school is not only good for kids; it's also liberating to teachers and school leaders who can be far more innovative in their approaches to curriculum and instruction instead of relentlessly being pushed into a one-size-fits-all system. But first and foremost it's about giving lower-income children opportunities they otherwise cannot access.
Contrary to anti-school choice rhetoric, there is no well-funded, organized lobby on behalf of the families who are the primary beneficiaries of school choice policies, which is why it's so difficult to complete against the powerful education establishment. Those families need a voice. And on this issue they need a voice from educators willing to stand up to their own colleagues and institutions and challenge their assumptions and arguments.
I'll try my best to always do so with civility, seeking common ground wherever possible, but without compromising the fundamental conviction that every family deserves to decide who educates their children. And I welcome every Kentuckian, educators included, to join me.
See you in Frankfort.
GARY HOUCHENS, Phd., is a professor at Western Kentucky University in the Department of Educational Administration, Leadership and Research
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