Amendment 2: A constitutional ‘bush hog’ clearing the way for education freedom

Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions

Thursday, June 6, 2024 — If voters approve Amendment 2 in November, the path will be cleared for state lawmakers to implement policies that give Kentucky families the same types of educational choices already available in the vast majority of states, including all seven neighboring our commonwealth.

Opponents of this measure, including some public schools superintendents, have labeled this as a “voucher amendment.” However, this proposed amendment contains no policy or program. It doesn’t mandate that Kentucky have public alternatives such as charter schools or nonpublic alternatives, like vouchers or tax-credit scholarships.

Rather, it serves as a constitutional bush hog by removing legal barriers erected by opponents and clearing the path toward education freedom in our commonwealth. It will allow for unfettered debate and decision-making in future legislative sessions about educational choices that can best meet the needs of Kentucky families and their children.

Opponents also claim that passage of the amendment will result in school-choice policies that harm Kentucky’s public education system by diminishing desperately needed funding for an already-underfunded system.

But is Kentucky’s public education system a severely underfunded operation, and would education-choice policies that fund programs allowing parents to seek better schools for their children decimate it?

Recently, I was invited to speak on the constitutional amendment in the beautiful mountains of Jackson County in southeastern Kentucky. Along with my presentation, the Bluegrass Institute released a policy brief looking at that rural school district’s spending and academic outcomes.

Since passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, the county’s per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, has more than tripled – from less than $7,500 to nearly $24,000, higher than even the per-pupil spending in urban Fayette County, Kentucky’s second-largest school district.

Yet the Jackson County district’s academic performance has not nearly kept pace with these huge spending increases. In fact, the data say it’s headed in the wrong direction.

Only 8% of Jackson County’s eighth-graders attained proficiency in mathematics while two-thirds failed to score “proficient” or above in reading. These outcomes indicate a decline from earlier grades, where a majority of the district’s fourth-grade students attained proficiency in reading and math.

Yet, addressing Jackson County’s poor academic results doesn’t seem to be on the radar of Rep. Timmy Truett, R-McKee, who represents the district in the legislature and is the McKee Elementary School principal.

Truett opposed allowing voters to decide the education-choice amendment while adding to opponents’ continued harping on this mythical narrative that offering parents of those eighth-graders who are failing to get the education they need will diminish the public K-12 system.

“I am against taking money away from the districts who need that extra funding,” T Truett opined during the House debate.

“I’m afraid of what this legislation may do,” Truett held forth.

But should a legislator be “afraid” to allow the people to speak?

Shouldn’t the concern be more about what the future holds for students unprepared for their academic studies and careers than in propping up an overfunded mediocre system, which, after all, is supposed to exist for the sole purpose of such preparation?

In fact, isn’t it possible that allowing the legislature to create programs with funding mechanisms providing Kentucky parents more choices regarding where and how their children learn would create dynamics that would bring improvement to Kentucky’s public education system?

It’s more than possible. It’s happening in other states.

In Florida, for example, a half-million students are being educated in public charter and private schools chosen by their parents rather than assigned by school district bureaucrats, including more than 100,000 benefiting from tax-credit scholarship policies.

If Truett’s fears that offering parents options with funding mechanisms were well-founded, then Florida’s public education system already should be decimated since hundreds of thousands of families are choosing a nontraditional public or private school in that state.

Yet just the opposite is occurring.

The more choices Florida offers its parents, the more its public education system improvises with greater efficiency in the use of taxpayers’ dollars.

The institute’s report on Jackson County is part of a series of snapshots being composed of several Kentucky school districts’ spending and educational outcomes. The series began with a look at statewide trends, which follow similar patterns found in Jackson, Fayette, Jefferson and other counties: steep per-pupil spending increases – more, even, than in Florida – while lagging in academic performance.

In constant 2022 inflation-adjusted dollars, Kentucky’s per-pupil education revenue increased from less than $10,000 in 1992 to more than $16,000 in 2022 while Florida’s education revenue only increased by the equivalent of less than $700 in real dollars during that same time period.

U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that in 2022, only four states had lower education revenue per student than Florida while Kentucky’s revenue was higher than in 18 other states. But, academic performance in the two states hasn’t mirrored that fiscal reality.

Choice in Florida is clearly associated with noteworthy – and economical – education improvement while school-choice-sparse Kentucky languishes with an inefficient public school system that now performs notably behind Florida’s.

Section 183 of Kentucky’s Constitution states: “The General Assembly shall, by appropriate legislation, provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the State.”

Opponents of choice for parents without means are all shook up about whether schools of choice fit the constitutional moniker of “common schools.”

Ironically, it’s the very idea they oppose so strenuously – that parents, rather than zip codes, bureaucracies or incomes should determine their children’s educational settings – that offers Kentucky its best chance of achieving a truly efficient, thus truly constitutional, public education system.

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


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