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School choice, school politicking and public school legislation

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after appearing in publications statewide.

Parents are increasingly concerned about the content and effectiveness of public schools’ curriculum as well as the openness of school officials to hearing and responding to their concerns. These concerns seem especially grave regarding gender/sexual issues and critical race theory topics.

As a result, many have called for greater transparency regarding these issues, and for curricular matters generally, as well as for greater openness and responsiveness of school administrators to parents’ views. In this vein, the General Assembly recently passed Senate Bill 5 that addresses sexual material in schools.

Transparency in this respect – and regarding other school matters such as curriculum and safety – as well as responsiveness to parents are extremely important and SB 5 is a step in the right direction. But I view this legislation as a complement to – not a substitute for – broad and robust school choice for Kentucky parents.

Information about each school’s curriculum, practices and openness is of substantial assistance to parents in determining whether a school is right for their child. Indeed, schools that must compete for students expect to be open and provide a great deal of information to parents.

Openness and information themselves, however, are not effective substitutes for parental choice and school competition.

If a parent determines that the public school practices are wrong for their child, how can it be addressed? Under the usual circumstances, the parent lodges a complaint with the school, and if nothing is done, may engage in a time-consuming process of appealing to or schmoozing higher levels of the public school bureaucracy.

Alternatively, a parent might initiate the difficult political process of fashioning a majority of parents or cobbling together a big enough parental interest group to influence district and school policies. But these efforts often fail. All the while their child suffers.

SB 5 shortens this process with respect to parental objections to sexual material in school libraries. It requires a relatively fast review by the school principal and, if needed, by the local school board. Also, parents are able to exempt their children from exposure to objectionable material.

By the way, this has nothing to do with “book banning.” School libraries cannot possibly carry every book published. Decisions must be made about which books to carry. SB 5 requires that parents be brought into the decision-making process regarding appropriate books to hold.

But notice that this took an act of the state legislature to accomplish – itself a sizeable political task. And it addresses only one aspect of potential parent concerns about their public school. What if a parent finds deep dissatisfaction in other aspects of the local school?

Of course, parents might, and sometimes do, move to a different school district or catchment zone to find a better situation for their children. However, this is a burdensome way for parents to find schools best suited to meet their children’s needs.

In a system of parental choice with robust competition amongst schools, the dissatisfied parent simply moves their child to another school. End of story. No need to engage in political wrangling and arm-twisting. No need to change residences.

To attain a strong system of school choice and competition, it looks as though Kentucky needs an amendment to our state constitution, followed by strong legislation enabling school choice. This cannot happen until 2024. In the meantime, we’re reliant on the state legislature to press public schools to be more responsive to parents. While the latter is helpful, deeper improvements in the commonwealth’s schooling system await greater choice and competition.

Parents have real control of their kids’ education when they control the purse strings, that is, when money follows the student and parents choose schools that best suit their kids. This is far superior to having to play politics.

John Garen, Ph.D., is BB&T Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Kentucky and a Bluegrass Institute Scholar. He can be reached at

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