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Kentucky lawmakers should ride Trump’s coattails to school-choice victory

By JIM WATERS
Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions

Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 — Republican legislators representing rural districts across Kentucky who want to support school choice but fear possible backlash from bureaucrats who run school districts back home received some stout political cover from President Trump in his State of the Union speech.

While calling on Congress to pass legislation creating federal tax-credit scholarships, Trump noted that 18 states offer scholarship policies “so popular that tens of thousands of students remain on waiting lists.”

Such a waiting list already exists in Kentucky even though ours isn’t yet one of those states with scholarship tax credit legislation though bills are moving through our state House and Senate.

Instead, the more than $8 million raised since 1998 by School Choice Scholarships (SCS), a small, nonprofit organization in Louisville, comes from voluntary contributions made primarily by generous residents of the River City who give not for a tax break but because they want to help children from poverty-stricken homes facing an uphill climb in life.

This money has translated into scholarships used at 60 private and parochial schools by more than 8,000 students eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches in Jefferson and Oldham counties.

The modest Louisville program’s extraordinary success starkly demonstrates how students from low-income homes – children most likely to get assigned to a failing public school and cast aside by the system – greatly benefit from scholarships allowing them to find and attend a school that’s a better fit for their individual learning needs.

The proportion of students proficient in grade-level mathematics, for example, increases on average from 28% from when they first enter SCS to 81% just three years later.

Tragically, there are 6,500 students on the program’s waiting list for whom there simply aren’t enough scholarship dollars available.

If there are that many children on a waiting list for a small privately funded program covering only two counties, imagine what could happen with a tax-credit scholarship policy resulting in a private education for thousands of children in the 120 counties statewide, including those 6,500 on SCS’s waiting list?

The thousands of students also on hold in other states allows us to speculate about the likely popularity of such a program in Kentucky.

About 53,000 students receive scholarships in Pennsylvania while 49,000 languish on a waiting list.

A similar scenario in Kentucky with roughly one-third of the Keystone State’s population would find 18,000 students receiving scholarships with more than 16,000 on a waiting list.

It’s time for Kentucky lawmakers understandably nervous about potential blowback of supporting school choice to put on their big-boy-and-girl pants and hold the needs of children from poor homes trapped in failing schools of a higher priority than the ideological agendas of overpaid bureaucrats and hyper-emotional union bosses back home.

Those lawmakers should ride the wave created when more than 1.2 million Kentuckians voted in the 2016 presidential election for Trump, who’s now using America’s biggest microphone to refocus education policy away from power-grabbing adult detractors and back to children’s futures.

“The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream,” Trump speechified.

Who in either party can argue with such an aspirational mission?

Also, arguing with Trump’s statement that “for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools” is an exercise in futility considering growing achievement gaps between the haves and have-nots and alarming increase in violence and fiscal mismanagement in our public education system.

Could it be Trump’s commitment to education reform – particularly to school choice – is helping grow his political coattails and provide wind beneath his soaring approval ratings?

Considering Trump’s popularity in Kentucky, wouldn’t this be a good time for legislators wanting to do the right thing by our kids to grab ahold?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.

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