Defending Kentucky’s Public Schools: A Plea from House Democratic Caucus Chair Cherlynn Stevenson

by Kentucky House Democratic Caucus Chair Cherlynn Stevenson, D-Lexington

It has been a little more than 130 years since Kentucky’s constitutional framers laid the cornerstone of public education in the commonwealth – a one-sentence directive that calls on the General Assembly to “provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”

The phrase is easy to understand but apparently hard for some to follow.  If they have their way next year, public education as we know it will change forever, and not for the better.

This battle could very well be the biggest we have faced in the six years since the legislature began trying to divert public tax dollars to private schooling.  The two most prominent attempts were the authorization of charter schools that almost no one wants to build and the creation of “education opportunity accounts” that relied on a convoluted tax-credit scheme to sidestep constitutional barriers.  The Kentucky Supreme Court saw through this ruse and unanimously rejected it in December.

We got a glimpse of what to expect in 2024 during this year’s legislative session, when 35 House Republicans – including two House leaders and the chair of the House Education Committee – cosponsored House Bill 174.

This proposed constitutional amendment, which could go before voters late next year, would create a permanent funding channel for private education that no state court could touch.  That would force underfunded and overworked public schools to do even more with less, and at a time when we truly need an all-hands-on-deck approach to close growing academic gaps.

Before I explain why this constitutional amendment is wrong, let me emphasize that I am proud to support private schools.  They play am invaluable role in our communities and for many families, and Kentucky would be far poorer without them.

But their mission differs in key ways from our public schools, which are designed for everyone regardless of need, cost nothing to attend and are subject to public oversight and accountability.  They’re a shared responsibility, much in the same we fund first responders and critical infrastructure like roads and utilities.

Other states traveling the route many of my fellow legislators seemingly want to take are showing us what trouble could lie ahead.  In Florida, for example, 10 percent of education funding is now diverted to private and home schooling, a threefold percentage increase in just three years.

Under legislation signed into law there this spring, universal vouchers no longer have family income limits, and their value — $8,500 – is about double what our state government budgets each year for Kentucky’s elementary and secondary students.

Other states have also given up the false pretense that sold vouchers as a lifeline for lower-income families.  Not surprisingly, the families who don’t need them are the very ones benefiting; in Arizona, three-fourths of voucher applicants last year were already learning in a private setting.

Simply put, Kentucky cannot afford this kind of subsidy, especially if it comes at the expense of our public schools, which are already getting a fourth less from the state than they were in 2008, when adjusted for inflation.

Even if the constitutional amendment fails next year, Kentucky’s public schools still face an uphill battle.  Ongoing tax “reform” is on track to reduce state revenues by almost $2 billion a year by 2025, which will have a profoundly negative impact on schools during the next economic downturn.

Other recent legislative actions like limiting raises for school employees and politicizing the classroom are making it even tougher to keep the teachers we have and to encourage more to join the profession.

The General Assembly needs to see this as the crisis it is, not look for new ways to make it worse.  Those who wrote our 1891 state constitution understood that a successful Kentucky depends on a strong system of public education.  We need more in the legislature to understand that the same holds true today.

Photo: Kentucky House Democratic Caucus Chair Cherlynn Stevenson of Lexington