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Judge halts Kentucky tax credits that could help cover private school tuition

Josh James

A Kentucky circuit judge has pressed pause on a hotly-debated school choice law, arguing it runs afoul of the state Constitution. 

The ruling revolves around controversial scholarship tax credits approved by the GOP-led General Assembly earlier this year.

Lawmakers set up what are called "education opportunity accounts," funded by donors who are eligible for the tax credits. The accounts could, in turn, be used to fund a variety of school-related expenses for students in need — including private school tuition in some of the state's most populated counties.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled that sending the donated dollars outside of "common schools" is unconstitutional unless taxpayers sign off on the move. 

Critics of the idea argued during this year's session that the funding mechanism effectively funnels state dollars into schools that don't have to serve all students.

"You can give every dollar that you would pay in state income tax to one of these organizations and it counts, just the same as if you were paying your income tax toward the state of Kentucky," Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey said in March. "That's why it's public money."

But the Institute for Justice, which has defended the tax credit program, disagrees. It says the donations that could reduce taxpayers' liability are "no different from the many Kentucky tax incentives already on the books for everything from college tuition to film production."

Judge Shepherd's ruling blocks enforcement of the tax credit law. School choice backers EdChoice Kentucky say they believe the provisions will be upheld on appeal.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.