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Kentucky Families Fight for Educational Freedom

With public schools around the country having closed their doors over the past year and a half, support for educational choice is surging. Parents frustrated with the status quo are increasingly considering alternatives to their neighborhood public schools. Thanks to this enthusiasm, 18 states have enacted or expanded educational choice programs this year.

One of those states is Kentucky, which recently passed a historic education savings account program. Kentucky has never passed an educational choice program before, despite our allies’ diligent efforts. This year, with IJ’s help, the Bluegrass State authorized ESAs that will enable thousands of children to get a better education. Families can use these accounts for textbooks, tutoring, and—in counties with more than 90,000 residents—private-school tuition. 

Kentucky’s pathbreaking ESA program is one of the nation’s biggest: It authorizes up to $25 million in annual ESA contributions. Also, both middle- and low-income families are eligible to participate—the program’s income cap for a family of four is about $85,000. The program will be financed entirely by voluntary contributions. Donors who subsidize ESAs will in turn be eligible for matching tax credits.

For IJ’s clients, this program could be a game changer. Akia McNeary, for example, enrolled her son in a private school that she felt was safer and a better learning environment for him than the public school to which he was assigned. For those reasons, she would like to enroll her daughter at the same school but, without an ESA lifeline, she cannot afford to send both children. Enrolling her son alone was a tremendous financial hardship—her husband worked two jobs while she also worked full time to make ends meet.

Sadly, as expected, defenders of the education status quo have challenged Kentucky’s ESA program in court. In early June, a coalition of public school districts teamed up to file suit. According to them, the ESA program violates the Kentucky Constitution’s provision for an “efficient system of common schools,” among other provisions. To protect the ESA program and the families who will rely on it, IJ moved to intervene in this lawsuit on behalf of Akia and other parents like her.

Our defense of this program is critical for two reasons. First, without our intervention, families like Akia’s may not be able to keep their children in the schools of their choice. Without access to ESAs, many children could be stuck with a status quo that isn’t working for them. Second, a victory in Kentucky will benefit choice programs in other states. That’s because the public school lobby’s argument—that enabling educational choice would unconstitutionally threaten the public school system—is an argument raised in many other contexts. 

But, as we argue in this case, ESA programs like Kentucky’s simply offer families alternatives. And there’s nothing wrong—let alone unconstitutional—with offering alternatives to public schools. If the government is going to play a role in education, its responsibility is not to prop up public schools at any cost but to help ensure that children learn. Empowering parents to pursue the environment that works best for their children is a great way to do that.

Milad Emam is an IJ attorney.

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