FRANKFORT, Ky. — More Kentucky students are shifting to private schools or homeschooling, as opposed to public education. That’s what a new study from EdChoice Kentucky found.
Western Kentucky University education researcher and EdChoice Kentucky board member Gary Houchens evaluated enrollment trends in the Commonwealth over a five-year period.
“Nonpublic school participation in Kentucky has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly over the past two years,” said Houchens.
The report found nonpublic school participation, which includes both private schools and homeschooling options, increased 8.16% in the 2021-2022 school year. Of Kentucky’s 171 school districts, 121 reported increases in nonpublic school participation in 2021-2022. Houchens said some areas saw more of a shift than others.
“Jefferson County saw a 12% increase in nonpublic school participation, where Fayette County saw a decrease of almost the same amount. Boone County was one of our most interesting cases. Boone County is one of our larger counties, and there we saw a 49% increase in nonpublic school participation last year alone and almost all of that was driven by new student enrollments in the private schools in that community,” said Houchens.
Houchens found, in larger cities, the shift went mostly to private schools. The study found that in rural counties, homeschooling is becoming more popular.
The report does not evaluate what is causing this trend. However, seeing a substantial shift the past two school years, both Houchens and Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Jason Glass suspect the pandemic played a role.
“I think we shouldn’t infer too much based on what happened during the pandemic. It was a really unusual, unique set of circumstances,” said Glass.
He thinks the trend of having more educational options will be here to stay, though he does not think that has to be outside of a public school setting.
“Going forward, we are likely to see the proliferation of more schooling options. Even within the public school sector, you are seeing different types of schools being generated that have specializations. That is likely to continue,” said Glass.
Houchens, however, thinks these findings provide reason to expand the state’s education opportunity accounts. The state law would offer a tax credit for private donations to organizations that dole out the money to families for education expenses. In some counties, that includes funding private school tuition. Houchens would like to see that expand to all counties.
“No school, no matter how good it is, is a perfect fit for every single child. Every family needs to be able to make choices based on what is in the best interest of their children,” said Houchens.
Commissioner Glass said he is in favor of families having options, but not at the expense of public education.
“Private school options are wonderful. Homeschool options are wonderful for families who want or are able to do that, but having a quality public school system for families that want that options is also important,” said Glass. “We have to be careful not to dismantle and damage the institution of public education that is really the bedrock of so many communities in Kentucky.”
While approved by lawmakers, education opportunity accounts are not in use, as the matter is tied up in court.
Houchens thinks the shift to nonpublic education is likely here to stay. “What I speculate is that many of these families, once they have the opportunity to experience homeschooling or private schools, may decide that is actually the best fit for their kids and what they want to be committed to long-term,” said Houchens.
Commissioner Glass does not seem as convinced.
“I checked in with the largest school districts in the state just as the new school year was getting started. They are coming, in terms of enrollment, right in line with their historical averages,” said Commissioner Glass. “That’s a good sign emerging from COVID. We saw Jefferson County about where they are used to for the past several years, Fayette County the same thing. Boone County was down slightly but not markedly and an increase in Warren County, so I think we shouldn’t infer too much based on what happened during the pandemic. It was a really unusual, unique set of circumstances.”
You can read the full report here.