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School choice and legacies

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

By choosing to go on the road to Shelbyville recently for oral arguments appealing a Franklin Circuit Court ruling striking down modest school choice legislation passed in 2021, the state’s Supreme Court gave more Kentuckians outside Frankfort the opportunity to witness its work.

With some exceptions due to COVID, the court has heard cases in various locations throughout the commonwealth annually since 1985 as an educational opportunity for citizens to observe the justices in action.

The recent session was among the court’s final oral arguments – and the last outside its chambers – to be heard by Chief Justice John Minton Jr. and Deputy Chief Justice Lisabeth Hughes, who have more than a half-century of combined service on the bench.

But what legacy will they leave?

Will they among their last acts deny the opportunity for thousands of Kentucky families to provide their children with a better education?

Or will the justices recall the sea of yellow in the scarves worn by hundreds of respectful but engaged parents and students who attended Wednesday’s hearing to signal their desire for education choice?

One yellow scarf wearer was Akia McNeary, a Boone County mother who wanted to use an Education Opportunity Account (EOA) included in the legislation to provide a better education for her children this fall.

However, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd’s ruling – the reason for the appeal – denied her that opportunity, ensuring it would be at least another year before McNeary could use EOAs to cover tuition at a nonpublic school.

It will be a surprise to this columnist if Minton, an esteemed and respected jurist who’s served as the court’s chief justice since 2008, sides with uninformed and self-interested education bureaucrats and teachers’ union bosses over mothers like McNeary, for whom public schools are not the right fit for all their children.

Four times his fellow justices have elected Minton the chief justice even as he made it clear his priority was to modernize Kentucky’s courts so they work better for citizens in the 21st century.

The court could also take a badly needed step toward modernizing Kentucky’s education policy by ruling in favor of parents across the commonwealth who want the same educational freedom available to families in 31 other states.

This columnist would be stupefied if these justices want their legacy to include being fooled by irrelevant or downright-false claims by opponents of educational liberty offered during the recent hearing that providing tax credits to generous donors who voluntarily donate money to help struggling mothers is somehow improper.

Some school-choice opponents go a step further, claiming these are dollars that actually belong to the government.

If that’s the case, do dollars voluntarily given to churches and charities belong in government coffers rather than in donors’ hands to do with as they choose?

After Wednesday’s formal hearing, the justices opened the floor for questions.

The only question came from UK College of Education Dean Julian Vasquez Heilig, an ideologue who strenuously opposes parental choice. He asked the justices which of them attended public schools.

But what questions would attendees and even the justices have asked had they known about the ACT scores for 2022 high school graduates released on the same day as the court held its hearing in Shelbyville?

After decades of denying parents without means a choice of where to educate their children, 82% of Kentucky’s white high school graduates and an astonishing 97% of graduating Black students lacked college readiness across the four academic areas tested by the ACT.

The more choices parents have, the better public schools perform.

It’s how competition works, and it’s really happening in Florida, which offers its parents the greatest number of educational alternatives among states in the country. Meanwhile, public schools in the Sunshine State have moved way ahead of their counterparts in Kentucky on national assessments.

That’s a win-win situation that should become part of Kentucky’s legacy, too.

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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