Report shows rapid growth in Kentucky nonpublic education enrollment

(The Center Square) – It’s back-to-school time across Kentucky, and a report released Wednesday shows more kids are going away from public schools.

According to EdChoice Kentucky, nearly 98,000 students attended a nonpublic school in the 2021-22 academic year. That number has grown by more than 20,000 since 2017.

More than 58,000 students were enrolled in a private school, and more than 39,500 were homeschooled. Those figures represent 6.3% and 11% gains from the previous year.

Students in private schools or who are homeschooled now make up about 15% of the school-aged population in Kentucky, the report stated.

“This is a historic moment for parental empowerment in education, and policymakers must recognize these trends and ensure that every family has access to the right education for their children,” said Dr. Gary Houchens, the report’s author and an EdChoice Kentucky board member. “Helping more students succeed in a nonpublic school not only represents a cost saving to the Commonwealth, but it also helps more of Kentucky’s next generation achieve their full potential.”

During the 2021 General Assembly session, Kentucky lawmakers passed a law over Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto that established education opportunity accounts for families to use for school choice programs. Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd struck down the law last October, but the case is currently under appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Houchens, who also serves as an education researcher at Western Kentucky University, said lawmakers need to revisit the law and expand the opportunity for families to use the accounts for private school costs.

In its current form, the accounts would only cover private school costs in the state’s eight most populous counties. In his ruling, Shepherd noted there was “simply no rational basis” for that provision in the law.

“At least 70 counties have traditional nonpublic schools, and many serve students in multiple counties,” Houchens said. “Lawmakers should pass legislation next year to expand eligibility for this important program, which already exists in over 30 states, to make it available for families in all counties. These families should not be denied the chance to attend a school that best meets their child’s needs because of a lack of resources.”

The report said 121 of Kentucky’s 171 school districts reported increases in the nonpublic school population last year. In Boone County, which has the fourth largest population in the state, participation rose by 49% last year, and in Jefferson County, the state’s largest, the number grew by 12%.

However, more families went to public schools in Fayette County last year. The 918 student difference was a 13% decrease from the previous year.