By Andrew Vandiver and John Meiser
In recent years, over 15,000 additional Kentucky students have started attending a school other than a public school. Parents, of course, have always sought what is best for their children. But this shift represents an increase in parental potential that demands attention.
That’s why EdChoice KY partnered with attorneys from Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative to support Kentucky’s school choice program before the Commonwealth’s Supreme Court.
As more families move toward non-public schools, Kentucky parents called on lawmakers to alleviate the cost of choosing these educational options. The Kentucky General Assembly responded by passing the Education Opportunity Account Act (“EOA Act”), which created a privately funded needs-based assistance program for Kentucky families to cover certain educational expenses. The program covers a broad range of expenses, including tutoring services, therapies for students with special needs, career training and dual-credit college courses. The law also created a pilot program that would offer tuition assistance to help students attend PK-12 non-public schools in counties with more than 90,000 people.
Kentucky’s new program is in good company. More than 30 states — including every state bordering Kentucky — have some form of private-school-choice program. Last year alone, more than 20 states passed measures to create or improve them. The surest way to provide the best educational opportunities to our children is by empowering parents to enroll their children in the schools of their choice.
Having lost the battle against expanding educational opportunities for Kentucky children in the legislature, educational choice opponents filed a challenging lawsuit the constitutionality of the EOA Act. Unfortunately, the Franklin County Circuit Court agreed and struck down the EOA Act. Despite the law’s strong support, Kentucky families were still blocked from obtaining the program’s great benefits.
The court’s decision is wrong on the law and, perhaps worse, it reflects a serious misunderstanding of the important role that non-public schools and school-choice programs like the EOA act play in PK-12 education.
Fortunately, the Kentucky Supreme Court has taken up the case on an appeal filed by Attorney General Daniel Cameron and the Institute for Justice. The brief EdChoice KY submitted proudly supports their efforts.
From the very beginning — and well before the advent of the public-school system of today — non-public schools have provided a crucial service to Kentucky’s diverse student population. Since the 19th century, many non-public schools—religious and secular alike—filled a critical gap in Kentucky for students who couldn’t access public schools.
These schools were not insular enclaves of privilege or wealth that sought to divide families or sequester educational opportunities. Just the opposite. Indeed, some estimate that during the mid-1800s as many as one-third of the students in Kentucky’s Catholic schools were Protestant. This story remains true today with the vast majority of non-public schools serving students outside of their tradition, including many faith-based schools in which much of the student body is of a different faith.
Non-public schools of all kinds serve a diverse array of students in Kentucky, including those most in need.
An EdChoice KY survey of non-public schools across the Commonwealth found many of their students qualified for federal free or reduced lunch and that a third of students received financial aid. The survey further found that 20% of the student population in these schools had special needs. At least five of the responding schools serve only students with special needs.
Kentucky non-public schools include a broad array of backgrounds and faith traditions. EdChoice KY’s board reflects this diversity with representatives of schools from Christian and Jewish traditions and those that are not religiously affiliated. While we come from different backgrounds, we all agree that educational choice remains out of reach for too many families. Non-public schools provide millions in financial aid, but a significant amount of need remains unmet. In too many instances, families must forgo the chance to attend a non-public school that would best serve their child’s needs.
These unmet needs are exactly what the EOA Act aims to fulfill.
Educational choice is long overdue in Kentucky. The Commonwealth has long been home to a wide range of educational options. Upholding the EOA Act will open the doors to those high-quality schools for future generations of students to come.
Andrew Vandiver is the president of EdChoice KY. John Meiser is the Supervising Attorney for the Religious Liberty Clinic at Notre Dame Law School.