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Kentucky's high court considers if tax dollars can be redirected to private schools

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Kentucky's Supreme Court is considering a case today that will decide whether the state can redirect would-be tax dollars to private schools. It's a debate that once again pits advocates of privatizing schools against people worried about the underfunding of public education. Jess Clark of member station WFPL will be in the courtroom today. Hi, Jess. Good morning.

JESS CLARK, BYLINE: Hello.

FADEL: So why don't we start with you just telling us more about this case. What's happening in the courtroom today?

CLARK: Sure. Well, many people have heard about school vouchers. That's a program in which the state pays for certain families to attend private school...

FADEL: Right.

CLARK: ...The stated rationale being that lower-income families deserve the same access to private school as wealthier families. But school vouchers are actually not legal in Kentucky. The state constitution pretty explicitly forbids using tax dollars on nonpublic schools. So this case is about a program private-school advocates have created that is very similar to a voucher program but different enough, they say, that it doesn't violate the Constitution.

FADEL: OK. So before we get into details of what each side is arguing in court, give us the context here about what's at stake in this case and why people are so invested.

CLARK: Well, it gets back to a debate that's played out in many states about the value of privatizing K-12 education. Vouchers and tax credit scholarship programs are legal in many other states. Some states even have both - Indiana and Louisiana being two. And proponents of these programs often refer to themselves as being for, quote, "school choice," and they argue that all parents should have the right to opt out of the public school system just like wealthy families who can pay for private school.

On the other side, advocates of public education say a big reason parents even want to opt out is because, for decades, lawmakers have underfunded public schools. In Kentucky, for example, if you adjust for inflation, spending per student is still significantly lower than it was in 2008. So opponents are worried that this program will just further drain funds away from students and from public schools.

FADEL: So that's the bird's-eye view. Let's get into how this program in Kentucky would work and how advocates say it differs from vouchers.

CLARK: So this program is a tax credit scholarship fund - at the risk of putting listeners back to sleep because that sounds pretty dry, but stick with me (laughter). Here's how it works. First, people or corporations make a donation to a scholarship fund that is managed by a third party, and in return for the donation, the donor gets a tax credit of up to 97% of their contribution. So essentially, these donors contribute to a scholarship fund in lieu of paying state taxes. Then low- and middle-income families can apply to use the scholarship funds on educational expenses, including private-school tuition. And advocates of the tax credit program say because the money never actually enters state coffers, the state is not technically funding these private schools, and the program is therefore legal.

FADEL: And what's the other side saying?

CLARK: Well, opponents say this program will take even more money out of the public school system and create a system of haves and have-nots. They call this program backdoor vouchers. And a lower court judge actually agreed with them, saying the mechanism for collecting the funds is irrelevant because the program ultimately amounts to state support for private schools. Advocates of the program appealed that decision, and that's why the court is hearing the case today.

FADEL: All right, and you will be in the courtroom. That's Jess Clark with WFPL. Thank you so much for your time and your reporting.

CLARK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered , Here & Now from WBUR , and NPR's Weekend Edition .