Opinion: Daniel Cameron fumbled on school choice

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Rich Gimmel is the former vice chair of the Kentucky Board of Education. Jan Skavdahl is the President of the TEA Party of Northern Kentucky. Caleb O. Brown is the father of three young children in Shelbyville. He writes at calebobrown.substack.com.

Kentucky politicos will spend the coming weeks trying to understand how a Trump-endorsed, Mitch McConnell-favored Republican managed to lose the governor’s race in a state that is quickly trending toward the GOP.

In all those post-election reflections, one fact should stand out: Daniel Cameron could have made his support for educational freedom an inspiring centerpiece of his education reform agenda. In choosing not to do so, he failed to speak up for Kentucky parents who are demanding robust learning options for their children.

For those of us who trust Kentucky parents to take ownership of their children’s education, this is baffling. School choice is very popular in Kentucky, and increasingly so.

A 2019 Mason-Dixon poll posed the following question to Kentucky voters:

School choice gives parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs. Generally speaking, would you say you support or oppose the concept of school choice?

A resounding 74% of voters said “yes” with just 20% opposed. Even in Louisville and Lexington, where teacher unions are strongest, support for school choice was an overwhelming 69%.

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That poll was taken months before parents were faced with the chaos and repeated missteps of Kentucky’s public school systems in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for broad educational freedom has likely continued to grow ever since.

In 2021, Kentucky’s neighbor to the east, West Virginia, went all-in delivering more education options for families by adopting the Hope Scholarship, one of the most inclusive and expansive educational freedom programs in the country. That program has delivered new options to hundreds of thousands of students there. New opportunities for schooling have dramatically expanded in West Virginia in just the last two years.

More broadly, surveys indicate that parental satisfaction with their kids’ education is higher when parents have robust choices.

Whether the chief concerns for parents are test scores, safety, sports teams, religious values, or any of the other dimensions along which parents regularly make choices on behalf of their children, educational freedom delivers, and the people who want to leave that power with parents are regularly rewarded at the ballot box.

But in debate after debate, Cameron refused to lend his voice to struggling Kentucky families. Unwilling to make the simple case for school choice, Cameron allowed his opponent to mischaracterize both Cameron’s support for expanded learning opportunities for kids, and the issue of school choice more generally.

Cameron’s case could have been straightforward: “I want parents to be in charge of their child’s education.”

While Kentuckians agree that the most important educational decisions should rest with parents, Cameron couldn’t bring himself to state that basic fact in public. It’s likely this failure cost him crucial votes.

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Every state that touches our commonwealth has adopted programs to give families a more powerful voice on behalf of their children’s education. In short, Kentucky is surrounded by school choice.

In 2024, Kentucky will have an opportunity to begin empowering parents to make the most important educational decisions on behalf of their children. Lawmakers are considering putting an amendment on the ballot that would begin to let families control new dollars designated for educating kids.

That kind of reform could be as revolutionary for Kentucky’s education landscape as it has been in other states, dramatically expanding the options available to the families for whom traditional schooling isn’t the best fit. Kentucky’s political leaders should have more courage to stand up for these parents than Daniel Cameron did.

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