By John Schaaf

John Schaaf is an attorney and co-author of “The Hidden History of Kentucky Political Scandals” (History Press).  He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kentucky and a J.D. from the Brandeis School of Law. 

As the last days of the Kentucky General Assembly unfold, big-dollar lobbyists in Frankfort are pushing their most controversial bills toward passage.  

Lobbyists recently shoved their private school voucher amendment across the finish line to set up a massive fight this fall between Kentucky taxpayers and a handful of multi-billionaires who probably couldn’t find this state on a map.

The school voucher amendment passed the House and Senate and goes straight to the November election ballot.  This costly proposal would allow politicians to funnel taxpayer money into private schools run by businesses and churches. 

From now until November, one side of the election fight will be out-of-state billionaire voucher promoters who want Kentucky tax dollars to flow straight into private bank accounts. 

On the other side will be Kentuckians who pay enough taxes, and don’t want to pay more for other people’s private schools.  They are businesses and individuals, and their state and local taxes support public schools in every county.  

They don’t want their local schools to lose jobs, or cut high school sports, marching bands, science fairs, or other extracurricular activities while private schools grab scarce public dollars. 

Lobbyists within the capitol

A few extremely rich people have spent liberally on lobbying and campaign gifts to politicians to push vouchers in Kentucky and other states. They make more from stock dividends in one day than most Kentuckians earn from years of working. 

In Frankfort, the billionaire and church-based lobbying push comes from groups like Americans for Prosperity (Arlington, Va.), Catholic Conference of Kentucky, EdChoice (Indianapolis, In.), Excellence in Education in Action (Tallahassee, Fl.), Family Foundation, Heritage Action for America (Washington, D.C.), Institute for Justice (Arlington, Va.), National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (Washington, D.C.), and Yes, Every Kid, Inc. (Arlington, Va.). 

Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Yes Every Kid, Inc. (YEK) are tax-exempt and funded by the billionaire owners of Koch Industries, an international corporation involved in chemicals, natural gas, oil, plastics, and other businesses.  The Koch network has spent billions on lobbying and campaign contributions to influence politicians all over the U.S., and they’re also aligned with EdChoice, Institute for Justice, and many other privatization promoters.

Excellence in Education in Action and Heritage Action for America, like AFP and YEK, are 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations.  They can develop relationships with politicians by pouring dark money into campaigns, and then hiring armies of lobbyists to persuade politicians to support radical ideas like school vouchers. 

The Catholic Conference and the Family Foundation are also tax-exempt, but they want Kentuckians who do pay taxes to pay for vouchers to generate income for schools operated by four Roman Catholic dioceses (Archdiocese of Louisville and the Dioceses of Covington, Lexington, and Owensboro) and for Christian schools that would also get state handouts.  They’ll accept millions of tax dollars, but they’ll pay little or no taxes themselves.

Privatizing public services

While the churches are motivated to get Kentucky tax dollars, AFP and the other national organizations are motivated by their scheme to privatize public services.  Many of the groups are located in and around the lobbyist swamp in Washington, D.C., but they lobby all over the U.S., and they’re backed by billionaires like the Kochs, the Bradley Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and other privatization backers.

During this year’s campaign, they’ll pump streams of cash into TV commercials and social media, trying to force Kentucky taxpayers to pay for private and religious schools, on top of what they’re already paying for public schools.  

The billionaires and church lobbyists call it “choice,” but if it passes, taxpayers will have no choice, and politicians will spend outrageous amounts of public money on private and religious schools – mostly in urban areas. 

Except for their lobbyists, the billionaires don’t know anybody in Kentucky, and they don’t care that Kentuckians will pay more taxes when politicians siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state budget into private schools.

Vouchers are busting budgets in states like Arizona, Florida, and Indiana,  where most of the voucher handouts go to people who already send their kids to private schools.  If that happens in Kentucky, local school boards will have to raise taxes to pay increasing costs, and school jobs and extracurricular activities will be on the chopping block.