OPED: Why Kentucky education policy should be about funding students, not systemsAugust 18, 2022
By: Gary W. Houchens
This column appeared in the Courier Journal on August 15, 22, 2022. To read online, click here.
Kentucky’s education landscape has changed dramatically over the last five years. Nearly 100,000 students are now utilizing a nonpublic school option, whether it’s a traditional private school, home school or some form of blended learning. The families of these students are helping demonstrate a clear demand for more education options.
In a recent report for EdChoice Kentucky, I analyzed data from the Kentucky Department of Education on trends in nonpublic education enrollment. The report shows that since 2017, the number of students participating in nonpublic education has increased by 20,000, a growth of more than 26%. Students in nonpublic schools now represent more than 15% of the state’s student body.
This change is not limited to larger districts but is instead spread across the state. Last year alone, 121 of Kentucky’s 171 school districts reported increases in students who were homeschooling or attending private schools.
What should this mean for education policy? For far too long, policymakers have assumed that supporting education meant funding public school districts. Yet, nationally there has been a shift to student centered funding models. States like Arizona and West Virginia are adopting universal educational choice programs that ensure that no parent goes into debt just to give their child a good education. Over 30 states have a nonpublic school choice program.
Kentucky took the first step towards a student first approach when it passed the Education Opportunity Account Act. The program will provide $25 million in private funding which can be used to cover a broad range of expenses, including tutoring services, therapies for students with special needs, career training and dual-credit college courses. The law also created a pilot program that would offer tuition assistance to help students attend PK-12 nonpublic schools in counties with more than 90,000 people.
The EOA program is currently on hold due to a lawsuit launched by a group of public school districts hoping to prevent more families from choosing a nonpublic school option. Given that these types of programs have a perfect record in the courts nationally, it is likely only a matter of time before the Education Opportunity Account Act is reinstated and families can begin receiving assistance.
In the meantime, families are voting with their feet. Many do so at an enormous cost financially, but willingly make the sacrifice because they are acting in the best interest of their children. For many more, this type of choice is out of reach even though their children would benefit from an option outside of their assigned public school district.
But all of them are likely asking why such a financial burden should exist at all for Kentucky parents simply wanting a good education for their children. If education policy is about every child reaching their potential, why should they have to attend a public school in order to receive support?
Kentucky has a long way to go towards leveling the playing field for all families, but we can start by strengthening the Education Opportunity Account Act. This would include expanding tuition assistance statewide, increasing funding and removing the five-year sunset on the program. This move alone would help relieve a heavy burden carried by thousands of Kentuckians.
From a big picture perspective, policymakers should broaden their definition of what it means to support education. Education policy should be about funding students, not systems. To the fullest extent possible, every education policy that comes out of Frankfort should put parents in the driver’s seat when it comes to their children.
In a world of increasing choices, Kentucky’s education landscape still remains a largely one-size fits-all system. Parents are making it abundantly clear that the status quo is not acceptable. Change is coming from the bottom up as parents assert more control over their children’s education. It is only a matter of time before education policy starts to catch up.
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, is professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University and a member of the Board of Directors for EdChoice Kentucky.