Op-Ed: It’s back to (nonpublic) school for thousands of students

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The following op-ed is written by Jim Waters, president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, described as a free-market think tank.

It may be back-to-school time, but that doesn’t mean a return to public schools for an increasing number of Kentucky students.

A new EdChoice Kentucky report authored by Gary Houchens, Ph.D., who teaches educational leadership at Western Kentucky University, reveals that nearly 100,000 students – more than 15% of the state’s entire student body – are being educated at home or in private schools.

In just the last five years, Houchens reports a 26% increase in Kentucky families choosing a nonpublic education for their children.

It’s a trend to pay attention to nationally, as well, considering analysis by the American Enterprise Institute and cited by Houchens indicating a combined 1.3 million American students left public schools during the two most recently completed academic years.

“The loss of almost 3% of the national student body represents the largest decline of public school enrollment in U.S. history,” he notes.

The establishment’s generally poor response to COVID likely fueled this enrollment trend; last year alone Kentucky saw an 8% surge in nonpublic education.

But the pandemic isn’t the only time during the past five years that schools have shut down and parents were relegated to the sidelines in the debate over public education.

In 2017 and 2018, front-page coverage was dominated by protests in Frankfort cultishly committed to shielding the commonwealth’s public education system from any meaningful change even though it continued producing poor results and wider gaps in key academic areas for too many students.

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While the establishment seemed largely uncaring about the harmful effects that shutting down schools in favor of these protests had on students, it was a dominant concern for many parents – even those sympathetic to teachers’ complaints about their pay, working conditions and retirement plan.

What the data doesn’t tell us with certainty is whether the trend of parents choosing to educate their children at home or in private schools will continue to rise.

The surprise will come if such trends don’t continue, however, considering Houchens’ analysis that homeschooling increased by 11% last year alone and has doubled since those protests; nearly 40,000 Kentucky students are now homeschooled.

If anything, the environment created by COVID caused parents nationwide to realize how many more tools are now available allowing them to successfully educate – or at least be much-more involved in the education of – their own children than they previously thought possible.

Apparently, it wasn’t just upper-middle-class white Kentuckians that came to this realization, either.

In 2021-22, the number of immigrant Kentucky students learning at home or in a private school quadrupled, English language learners tripled and more than 25,000 learning-disabled children – 17% more than the previous year – chose a nonpublic educational setting.

All of which adds to the growing mountain of evidence negating past claims by opponents of educational alternatives that Kentucky parents aren’t clamoring for more options, or that such policies are only attractive to a limited demographic and somehow encourage segregation while avoiding the enrollment of students with learning challenges.

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Not only does data suggest growing interest in nonpublic education, but it also indicates statewide appeal for alternatives; at least 70 counties have traditional nonpublic schools, many of which serve students in multiple counties.

State law passed by the General Assembly in 2021 and currently tied up in court allows only the parents in the commonwealth’s eight largest counties to use dollars donated to education opportunity accounts to cover private-school tuition costs.

Expanding that to include all counties would add fuel to Kentucky’s education-freedom fire.

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