Education savings accounts could bring another school choice showdown to KY

Is another school choice debate getting ready to take the stage in Kentucky?

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, may be the heir apparent to Kentucky’s longstanding contention with school choice. According to EdChoice, ESAs “allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses.”

In other words, for parents looking for options outside of their neighborhood school, ESAs would provide them with access to the education funding that would otherwise go to the child’s school district. That funding could go toward private schooling, online schooling, and a number of other options.

In some states, families can even use their ESAs to pay for a combination of public schooling and private tutoring. Because Kentucky does not currently have an ESA program, legislation would be needed to define exactly how families could use them.

Currently, only six states (Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, and Tennessee) have ESA programs, but a push from a new federal initiative called the Commonwealth Educational Opportunities (CEO) PAC, will seek to make Kentucky the seventh. Here’s how the organization describes their mission on their website:

We believe that all children should be able to choose the school that best meets their individual needs. Our children need alternatives to the bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all approach. Unfortunately, that opportunity is only available in Kentucky to those who can afford it. Commonwealth Educational Opportunities is a coalition of parents and concerned citizens who advocate for policy change so that our children’s opportunities are no longer limited by their zip code or family’s income.

Despite opposition from groups like KEA, a 2018 poll revealed that a majority of Kentuckians — whether Republican, Democratic, or Independent — supported the expansion of school choice.

Furthermore, a Courier-Journal article has already detailed how the CEO PAC will seek to elect legislators this November who will endorse school choice legislation such as ESAs, meaning Kentucky may well be gearing up yet again for the school choice spotlight here in the coming months.

It won’t be our first. In fact, if history is any indication, ESAs could make for a long, tumultuous battle.

The authorization of charter schools became such a contentious issue in 2018 that it arguably led to an ouster of a beloved education commissioner. Then, in 2019, a bill that would have allowed scholarship tax credits became one of the centerpieces of the JCPS teacher walkouts.

ESAs may be the third attempt to bring school choice to Kentucky in as many years. Will the third time be the charm?

That remains to be seen. In the meantime, you can follow along with all of the action on ESAs in Kentucky with the official hashtag from the CEO PAC, #KYStudentsFirst.

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