FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — While Republican Daniel Cameron has downplayed his support for charter schools and vouchers in presenting his education plans, school choice advocacy groups have pumped millions of dollars into ads attacking his opponent, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
With school choice simmering as an ongoing issue in Kentucky’s legislature, Democrats say the ads by the outside groups are an acknowledgement they see Cameron — the state’s GOP gubernatorial nominee — as an ally. The Democratic criticism comes as Cameron is trying to make inroads with educators, who formed a crucial part of Beshear’s coalition in winning the governorship four years ago. The most prominent group representing Kentucky’s public school teachers has opposed school choice measures.
School choice looms as one of the most polarizing issues in the closely watched campaign marked by sharply contrasting views between Cameron and Beshear, who is seeking a second term in November. Bills promoting charter schools and private school-related tax credits were among the most contentious faced by Kentucky lawmakers in recent years, splintering Republican supermajorities. Beshear vetoed those school-choice measures, but enough GOP lawmakers voted to override his action.
Cameron skipped over school choice issues last week when unveiling an education plan. The state Democratic Party claimed it was a strategic omission, contending the GOP nominee recognizes his stance on school choice is “wildly unpopular” with Kentucky voters. Cameron’s campaign says school choice policy wasn’t included because his plan focused on overcoming pandemic-related learning setbacks he blames on COVID-era school closures backed by Beshear.
In a statement Monday, Cameron said the state can make robust investments in public education while “expanding opportunity and choice for our kids.” He vowed, if elected, to collaborate with the legislature on policies promoting “education innovation.”
While Cameron has mostly bypassed discussion of school choice during the campaign, groups advocating those issues have run ads ripping into Beshear. The ads tried to connect him to the Louisville schools’ bus system meltdown and blasted his decision allowing the early release of some nonviolent inmates early in the pandemic.
Beshear campaign spokesperson Alex Floyd said the groups aired “misleading ads” on other topics because they “know how unpopular vouchers are in Kentucky.” Beshear says it was GOP lawmakers who failed to fully fund school transportation and that governors from both parties released low-level, nonviolent inmates near the end of their sentences to help ease the spread of COVID in prisons.
Asked about the ads, Mike Biundo, executive director of one of the pro-school choice groups, criticized Beshear’s “record of failure” on COVID-19, crime and education. Biundo told the Lexington Herald-Leader “it’s time for a conservative reformer as governor that will pass popular initiatives like school choice.”
Nationally, groups are pushing school choice policies at the state level as conservatives try to make their mark on school policies following COVID lockdowns and amid battles over transgender policies.
In Kentucky, Democrats said the anti-Beshear ads show that the pro-school choice groups view Cameron as an important ally in their cause.
“Kentuckians don’t want to see taxpayer dollars taken out of public schools and given to unaccountable private schools. But Cameron can’t hide from his record,” state Democratic Party spokesperson Anna Breedlove said in a news release.
Cameron expressed support for charter schools and private school vouchers during a March debate among GOP gubernatorial hopefuls. It came during a lightning round that allowed little or no elaboration.
As the state’s attorney general, Cameron’s office unsuccessfully defended a Republican-backed measure to award tax credits for donations supporting private school tuition. The legislation was struck down by Kentucky’s Supreme Court in 2022.
Responding to the ruling, Cameron said he was “saddened that parents across the commonwealth won’t be able to use the needs-based funding” provided by the tax credit program to “expand learning opportunities for their children.” Opponents of the tax credits said they would have cost the state up to $25 million a year — money they said could go to public education.
Meanwhile, Cameron is trying to repair the damage former GOP Gov. Matt Bevin inflicted on his party by feuding with education groups over pensions. Bevin narrowly lost the 2019 election to Beshear.
In a recent speech to school administrators, Cameron apologized for the rift, declaring: “I also want to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Sorry if me or anyone in my party has ever given you the impression that we don’t appreciate you or that we don’t respect you. Let me assure you that the Republican Party in this state under my leadership will show that we do — not only in word but in deed.”
The Kentucky Education Association, a group closely aligned with Beshear, was unimpressed by the overture, pointing to Cameron’s school choice leanings. The group, which represents tens of thousands of educators, said Cameron was attempting to play “teacher’s pet” in his promises to educators.
School choice advocates are pledging to mount an effort next year to put a school choice constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot for voters to decide.
“Every Kentucky student should have the ability to succeed in a learning environment as unique as they are, regardless of their family’s finances,” EdChoice Kentucky President Moe Lundrigan said.