The Kentucky Supreme Court dealt a heavy blow to school choice advocates Thursday, declaring unconstitutional a controversial law that allowed people to receive tax credits for donations to support private school tuition.
The high court unanimously ruled that the state’s Educational Opportunity Accounts Program was illegal under provisions of the state constitution that require tax dollars to support “ordinary schools.” Opponents of the law said it would have diverted state funds from public schools.
“We are forced to accept that the EOA Act violates the plain language of Section 184,” Vice Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes wrote for the court. “In short, it puts the Commonwealth in the business of raising ‘sum(s)…for education outside of the common schools.”
The ruling upheld a lower court decision that barred the state Department of Revenue from running the program more than a year ago. The court’s decision was welcomed by teachers’ unions, who hailed it as a victory for public school education.
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“We simply cannot afford to support two different education systems, one private and one public, with taxpayer pennies, and this ruling supports that concern,” said Eddie Campbell, president of the Kentucky Education Association, which represents to tens of thousands of public educators. “This decision is proof that the courts continue to serve as an important check against legislative overreach.”
School choice advocates strongly criticized the ruling, calling it “outside the mainstream of legal case law.”
“Today, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a decision that will prevent thousands of Kentucky students from reaching their full potential,” EdChoice Kentucky President Andrew Vandiver said in a statement.
“This effort to empower parents is too important to stop, and we will continue to work to provide all Kentucky students with access to an education as unique as they are,” he added.
The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a Kentucky-based free-market think tank, accused the court of “siding with opponents of educational freedom.”
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The controversial school choice law narrowly passed Kentucky’s Republican-dominated legislature, overcoming a veto by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
The legal challenge centered on a key part of the law that creates a form of scholarship tax credits, called educational opportunity accounts. The lawsuit called it “diversion of public revenue to private schools” and called for it to be struck down.
Under the measure, private donors backing the accounts would have been eligible for state tax credits. The grants could have been used for a variety of educational expenses, including private school tuition in several of the state’s most populous counties.
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Opponents warned that the tax credits would cost the state treasury up to $25 million a year, money they said could go toward public education.
Supporters said the measure offers opportunities for parents who want new education options for their children but can’t afford them.
Associated Press contributed to this report.