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Ring education’s liberty bell in Kentucky, too

Opponents of giving Kentucky parents more alternatives when it comes to educating their children want to distract families and taxpayers and the lawmakers who represent them from the true success being achieved by public charter schools and tax-credit scholarships in some of the nation’s most challenging educational environments.

The fact that national test results show that black students in Atlanta, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., charter schools academically outperform their counterparts in those cities’ traditional public schools offer a real dilemma for progressive activists like the Rev. Sharon Felton, a Georgetown minister and coordinator of Pastors for Kentucky Children, who recently claimed in a Courier Journal op-ed that such school choice programs “often tend to harm students, public schools, families and our communities.”

Where, exactly, is the harm in allowing poor parents of children in schools that either fail or aren’t the best fit for at least some of the children to have the option of public charter schools or scholarships to attend high-performing private or parochial schools – opportunities already available to wealthier families?

It’s turns out that Felton’s utopian fluttering about “the great school system we already have going” borders on being a fantasy in too many places, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which shows most black students – Kentucky’s leading racial minority – being left far behind. NAEP scores just released indicate only 11% of Kentucky’s black eighth-grade students tested proficient in math while just 14% demonstrated grade-level proficiency in reading.

It might be difficult for a pastor in Scott County, where more than three of every four students are white, to understand the grim realities for Kentucky’s minority students in Louisville and Lexington, where Caucasians no longer comprise even half the student population.

Teachers’ unions and other radical anti-choice groups – the most likely sources for Felton’s underdeveloped talking points – know charter schools in America’s inner cities are closing the gaps.

Could it be they’re afraid that allowing such choices in Kentucky would more starkly reveal the deep and serious cracks in our current educational system, particularly as it relates to the most at-risk students? Would parental choice reveal an educational environment for minority students dominated by “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” as former President George W. Bush described these troubling academic achievement gaps?

Fixing those cracks begins with confronting the truth that neither all schools nor every teacher in them are “great,” which is a bitter pill for unions and their ideological bedfellows.

Choice opponents also float red herrings to distract from the truth about how policies offering parents more educational freedom nationwide are changing the trajectory of many lives among the 3 million young people currently attending public charter schools. Many of these kids were once headed for dropout status or the streets, prisons, morgues or worse.

It’s much more convenient for Felton and her anti-choice disciples to break the ninth commandment with false claims that scholarship tax-credit policies allow wealthy people “tax breaks for donating to the private school of their choice.” No scholarship tax-credit bill in the country or any of the legislation proposed in Kentucky allows donors to allocate their contributions to particular schools. Instead, the money is donated to tuition-granting organizations, the legal entities responsible for distributing scholarships to qualifying students so that families – not donors – decide the best schools for their children. Another deceptive claim frequently made by the anti-choice crowd is that scholarship tax credits destroy education systems because they take money from public schools.

However, what parental-choice-challenged zealots fail to include in their analysis is the fact that18 states now have such programs and none – zero, zilch, nada – have experienced the apocalypse promised by Felton and her flock should Kentucky also ring education’s liberty bell.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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