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School Choice in Kentucky

Renee Shaw talks with her guests about school choice policy. Scheduled guests include Jason Glass, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education; Anna Baumann, deputy director at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy (via video call); Eddie Campbell, president of the Kentucky Education Association; and Gary Fields, superintendent of the Bowling Green Independent School District.
Season 28 Episode 9 Length 56:33 Premiere: 03/22/21


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis on major issues facing the Commonwealth.

This weekly program features comprehensive discussions with lawmakers, stakeholders and policy leaders that are moderated by award-winning journalist Renee Shaw. Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form.
For nearly three decades, Kentucky Tonight has been a source for complete and balanced coverage of the most urgent and important public affairs developments in the state of Kentucky.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to or use the contact form. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 1-800-494-7605.

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Kentucky Tonight was awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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Renee Shaw is Moderator and Director of Public Affairs for Kentucky Educational Television, currently serving as host of KET’s Kentucky Tonight, Connections, election coverage, Legislative Update and KET Forums.

Since joining KET in 1997, Shaw has produced numerous KET public affairs series and specials, including KET’s nationally recognized legislative coverage. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, town hall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

As an award-winning journalist, Shaw has earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, earning two regional Emmy awards, and an award from the Kentucky Associated Press for political coverage of the state legislature. She was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2017. She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; earned the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform in 2014; and, in 2015, received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.  

In 2018, KET earned a national media award from Mental Health America for its multi-dimensional content on the opioid epidemic shepherded by Shaw. That same year, she co-produced and moderated a six-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. In 2019, Shaw was recognized by The Kentucky Gazette as one of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government. In addition, Renee was awarded the Charles W. Anderson Laureate Award by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues.

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

Debating Legislation That Would Make Significant Changes in Education Funding

Editor’s Note: On March 24, after the broadcast of this program, Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed House Bill 563 over his concerns that it would take as much as $25 million from public education and send it to “unaccountable private organizations with little oversight.” As for the nonresident student policy section of the bill, Beshear said he is willing to work towards a solution that would help struggling independent public school districts in the commonwealth.

In the final hours before the Kentucky General Assembly adjourned for the gubernatorial veto period last week, state lawmakers rushed through a bill that would expand school choice opportunities for parents and their children. House Bill 563 requires local school boards to craft policies to accept students from outside of their home districts. School funding that is allocated per pupil, known as SEEK, would follow students to the new district they select.

Another provision of the bill creates a $25 million tax credit for individuals who donate to non-profit organizations that will provide scholarship funds to needy students to cover the cost of attending a different public school, taking online courses or specialized career training, or receiving tutoring services. Scholarship students in the state’s eight most populous counties could also receive financial assistance to attend a private school.

Private and charter school advocates hail the legislation as a long-awaited step towards school choice options that most other states already allow. But some education advocates fear HB 563 will hurt already struggling public schools in the commonwealth.

A ‘Tidal Shift’ in Education Opportunities

Taken as a whole, HB 563 creates a “tidal shift” for Kentucky families who are dissatisfied with their current public school option, says Heather Huddleston, director of education policy at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy.

“We’ve always had school choice in this state for families with means,” says Huddleston. “House Bill 563 can help thousands of children who need it.”

An earlier version of HB 563 would have allowed students in Jefferson, Fayette, and Kenton counties the option to use money from the education opportunity accounts created by this legislation to attend a public or private school. But before the bill reached final passage, lawmakers added the private-school option for students in Boone, Campbell, Daviess, Hardin, and Warren counties.

Some families simply want a school that reflects their personal or spiritual values, says EdChoice Kentucky Vice President Andrew Vandiver. Others may seek a school that offers stronger academic programs or different extracurricular activities. Or they may want a safer environment for a child who is being bullied. He says HB 563 would make it possible for low-income parents to afford to pursue another opportunity.

“Put families in a position to choose and I think they’re going to make the right choices,” says Vandiver.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass says he is not opposed to school choice, but he contends this bill is not the way to do it. While it does empower parents and could create more innovative models for schools, Glass says he is encouraging Gov. Beshear to veto HB 563.

“It’s enormously consequential and important that we get this right,” says Glass. “Kentuckians deserve quality public policy when it comes to education, and the fact that this has been run through late in the session with an intentional effort to limit input from stakeholders in Kentucky is really troubling.”

Concerns about Accountability

Glass and other critics say the measure lacks accountability from the private schools that might gain students and of the account granting organizations that will collect and disburse the donated funds to selected students. Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell says the state could find better uses for the money that it will lose in providing a tax credit to the wealthy who donate scholarship funds to the granting organizations.

“That $25 million could be used for textbooks... for professional learning, our transportation isn’t fully funded,” says Campbell. “So there’s lots of ways this money could be put to use for all students in the state.”

Instead of making education opportunity accounts permanent, HB 563 creates a five-year pilot program to test the idea. Kentucky Center for Economic Policy Deputy Director Anna Baumann says she fears the tax credit cap will grow over time. She also questions provisions that give the granting organizations little oversight and the ability to keep up to 10 percent of funds raised to cover their overhead expenses.

“We’re opening the door to a program that will siphon resources out of the General Fund and into private schools that aren’t accountable to any of the standards that our public schools are held to,” says Baumann.

Vandiver says the bill does require reporting on the income of families helped by the program and how funds are being used. The account granting organizations will also be audited.

“The entire education opportunity account program is overseen by the state Department of Revenue,” says Huddleston. “So the fear that these programs will operate like the Wild West with no laws and no rules is really not going to be the case.”

Who Could Benefit from the Plan

Supporters of the measure say the plan is designed to help low-income children.

“A majority of the families have to be below reduced-lunch [income levels]... and within that category, you have to prioritize the people with the greatest need,” says Vandiver. “Once that threshold is met, you can go to 175 percent above reduced lunch, but those are working-class and middle-income families.”

But just because the money is targeted to those families doesn’t necessarily mean they will be able to access that funding. Baumann says research from other states indicates that the most affluent students within the eligibility criteria get the resources.

“The families that are most well situated to take advantage of the program are going to,” says Baumann. “Families in rural communities that don’t have many education alternatives, that have limited access to internet and transportation will face barriers to participating in the program.”

Glass calls the idea that HB 563 will be a boon for low-income students looking for other school options “a ruse.” He says poor and minority students who use these funds to get into a private school and then leave for whatever reason perform worse than those who stayed in a traditional public school. But Vandiver says low-income scholarship students in Florida’s school choice program were 43 percent more likely to attend a four-year college and 20 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.

The state’s public schools have had their funding cut by about 12 percent since 2008, according to Campbell. He says the new state budget includes no money for textbooks or professional development, and limited transportation dollars.

Glass also says that if private schools are to benefit from taxpayer dollars, then they should be required to meet the same standards and regulations as public schools and to accept any child who wants to attend, regardless of religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other status.

“If you’re going to take the public funds, pick up the moral responsibility that comes with those funds to serve every child,” says Glass.

Vandiver contends this $25 million investment by the commonwealth will not harm public schools. He says states with robust school choice program also have thriving public school systems.

“We have nothing against funding public schools, but the public schools currently receive about $8 billion in funding between state, local, and federal dollars, says Vandiver. “We’re only asking for a small amount of money that’s going to make a difference in the lives of thousands of kids across the state.”

Funding Private Schools with Public Dollars

The provision to allow public school students to attend a different public school district has also split educators.

Bowling Green Independent School District Superintendent Gary Fields supports HB 563, saying it will help the state’s 51 independent school districts survive. He says five independent districts have closed in the past 15 years. The Raceland-Worthington Independent schools in Greenup County have lost 12 percent of their enrollment in the last nine years, he says. Fields says he’s lost 60 students out of his district in recent years.

“For us, it’s a crisis of the independents,” says Fields. “No one would speak for us and so we had to speak for ourselves.”

Although his district is small, it’s highly diverse. Fields says 50 languages are spoken among his 4,200 students. His seven schools are 20 percent Black and 19 percent Hispanic; 65 percent students are on free lunch.

Under HB 563, students who live in Warren County or neighboring districts could more easily attend Bowling Green Independent. The education opportunity accounts could also cover the $500 tuition charged to outside-the-district students.

“It’s about opportunities, and I think that’s what we’re trying to give families in Kentucky,” says Fields.

Schools would not be required to take on nonresident students if they are already at capacity. Those that do welcome new students would also get the state SEEK funding that accompanies each pupil. That means some public school districts could lose funding, while others gain dollars.

The entire school choice package embodied in HB 563 worries a number of superintendents, including some that oversee independent districts. Houston Barber of the Frankfort city system says HB 563 will pave the way to publicly funding private school opportunities.

Superintendent Jay Brewer of the Dayton Independent School District in northern Kentucky says the so-called open-border policy will result in a shift of public dollars to private schools that have selective admissions criteria.

Fields says private schools are not the enemy of public schools, and both sides should learn to work together for the good of students. He contends the competition will make all schools better.

“Parents are going to decide with their SEEK dollars,” says Fields. “That’s going to show you if a district is having success.”

The fate of HB 563 is far from certain. The bill passed the state Senate 21 to 15, and the House 48 to 47. If Gov. Andy Beshear vetoes HB 563, as he has warned he will likely do, lawmakers might be unable to override that veto in the House, which would require at least 51 votes.

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Season 28 Episodes

City and County Issues

S28 E38 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 12/13/21

Compensating College Athletes: Name, Image and Likeness

S28 E36 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/22/21

Trends in State and National Politics

S28 E35 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 11/15/21

Abortion Rights and Restrictions

S28 E34 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/08/21

Kentucky's Social Services System

S28 E33 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/01/21

School Choice in the Commonwealth

S28 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/25/21

Historical Horse Racing: A Growing Pastime in Kentucky

S28 E31 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/11/21

New Developments and the Unknowns of COVID-19

S28 E30 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/04/21

COVID and the Classroom

S28 E29 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/27/21

Remembering 9/11, 20 Years Later

S28 E28 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/13/21

Kentucky's Response to COVID-19

S28 E27 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 08/30/21

Discussing the Surge of COVID-19 Cases in Kentucky

S28 E26 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 08/23/21

Fancy Farm Preview and State Politics

S28 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/02/21

Back-To-School Issues in Kentucky

S28 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/26/21

Childcare Challenges

S28 E23 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/19/21

The Urban-Rural Divide in Kentucky

S28 E22 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 07/12/21

Work Shifts: Kentucky's Labor Shortage and Hiring Challenges

S28 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/28/21

Public Infrastructure: What Kentucky Needs

S28 E19 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/21/21

Debating Critical Race Theory

S28 E18 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/14/21

Kentucky's Rebound From COVID-19

S28 E17 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/07/21

Jobs and the Economy

S28 E16 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/17/21

The Future of Policing in America

S28 E15 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/10/21

President Biden's First 100 Days

S28 E14 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/03/21

Mass Shootings and Gun Laws

S28 E13 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/26/21

Voting Rights and Election Laws

S28 E12 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/20/21

The 2021 General Assembly: Debating Major Legislation

S28 E11 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 04/12/21

Wrapping Up the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E10 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 03/29/21

School Choice in Kentucky

S28 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/22/21

No-Knock Warrants

S28 E8 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/15/21

Debating Legislative Priorities in the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E7 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 03/08/21

Proposed Legislation to Modify Kentucky Teachers' Pensions

S28 E6 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/22/21

Debating Historical Horse Racing Legislation

S28 E5 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/08/21

New Lawmakers in the 2021 Kentucky General Assembly

S28 E4 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/01/21

A Nation Divided

S28 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/18/21

Recapping the Start of the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E2 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 01/11/21

Previewing the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E1 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/04/21

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