School Choice Measure Will Reach Kentucky's November Ballot, Key Lawmaker Predicts

Students attend a school choice rally at the Kentucky Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Frankfort, Ky. School choice supporters are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would sanction state support for charter or private schools. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)
Students attend a school choice rally at the Kentucky Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Frankfort, Ky. School choice supporters are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would sanction state support for charter or private schools. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers are likely to put a proposal on the November ballot allowing voters to weigh in on whether the state should offer support for enrollments in charter and private schools, a key House committee chairman predicted Thursday.

Republican Rep. James Tipton, who heads the House Education Committee, pointed to overall lagging test scores for minority and economically disadvantaged students in the state's public schools as a driving force behind putting a school choice constitutional amendment on the ballot.

“I believe that is the reason we have so many parents who are frustrated with the situation they find themselves in, in public education, and they feel like they have no choice for their children,” Tipton said at a school choice rally at the state Capitol. "Well, you deserve a choice. You deserve an opportunity to help your children succeed, and that’s what we intend to do.”

Whether to put a school choice constitutional amendment on the ballot looms as a key issue for Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. Supporters of a ballot measure want to remove constitutional hurdles for school choice initiatives after suffering setbacks in the courts. Opponents say the measure would divert badly needed state money away from public schools.

With no election for statewide office on the Kentucky ballot this November, a school choice ballot measure would turn into a hard-fought campaign drawing considerable attention.

The Kentucky Education Association, a labor association representing tens of thousands of public school educators, warned Thursday that a school choice measure would hurt every public school in the state.

Lawmakers “could better serve the students and taxpayers across Kentucky by addressing the vital needs of our public schools, like the statewide teacher shortage, funding for universal pre-K and fully funding the transportation dollars Kentucky needs," KEA President Eddie Campbell said in a statement.

Tipton predicted that a proposed constitutional amendment on school choice will gain enough support to clear the legislature and reach the general election ballot. If statewide voters ratified such a proposal, lawmakers could follow up as soon as 2025 with legislation to "move the effort of education and choice forward in Kentucky,” Tipton said. He didn't offer any specifics about what that might include.

Since Republicans took complete control of Kentucky's legislature after the 2016 election, school choice has loomed as one major issue they haven't shaped to their liking, largely because of the court setbacks.

In 2022, Kentucky’s Supreme Court struck down a measure to award tax credits for donations supporting private school tuition. Opponents said the program would have diverted money from public schools.

Last year, a circuit court judge struck down another measure that set up a funding method for charter schools. The decision stymied efforts to give such schools a foothold in the Bluegrass State. Those schools would be operated by independent groups with fewer regulations than most public schools.

Those legal setbacks have further energized efforts to put a ballot measure before Kentucky voters in an effort to overcome constitutional hurdles. One school choice constitutional amendment was introduced in the early days of this year's session but so far hasn't advanced. Other measures could be forthcoming. Lawmakers this week passed the quarter pole of this year's 60-day session, which ends in mid-April.

At the school choice rally Thursday, Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams said Kentucky has “denied families one of their most critical choices.”

"We’ve denied families the ultimate power for freedom to decide how their children are educated,” he said. He said it's time the issue was put before statewide voters.

“Parental choice starts with voter choice," Adams said. "Kentucky voters ought to make this decision ourselves at the ballot box this fall as to who has the rights here, families or the government.”

Tipton made his case for school choice while pledging his continued support for public schools.

“I support education," he said. “Now what does that mean? That means that I believe that we have to have a strong public education system in our state. It also means that I support parents and students and their families having the ability to make the choices that are best” for them.

Campbell signaled that the KEA is ready for the showdown in the legislature and perhaps in November.

"Once taxpayers understand the negative impact this bill and amendment could mean to their public schools, we are confident they will reject it,” he said.