Homeschooling Surges in Kentucky
By Gary Houchens, PhD
COVID-related school closures, mask mandates, and concerns about what students are learning may all be contributing to the exodus of families from traditional public schools. It is too soon to know whether these students may eventually return, but there are indications that many of these families are happy with their decision. The education establishment needs to pay attention, and policymakers need to find ways to give every family the opportunity to choose the school setting that works best for their children.
Recently released data from the Kentucky Department of Education show that at the end of the 2020-2021 school year, approximately 90,000, or 14% of the state's school-aged students, were being schooled outside of the P-12 public education system.
Of that 90,000, about 35,000 were homeschooling, an increase of about 16,000 students - or a whopping 84% increase compared with similar data from 2018.
It's possible that some of these students returned to public schools this academic year. Those data aren't available yet to confirm. But my sense is that something has fundamentally changed in parents' attitudes toward the public education system.
To put it bluntly, parents are sick of the inefficiencies, adult-centered decisions, one-size-fits-all approach, lack of innovation, and creeping leftist ideologies in far too many public schools. These were all underlying problems with the education system prior to COVID, but the pandemic also turned schools into a means for power-hungry politicians to exert illegitimate control over the system and to pander to their ideological base.
In Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear ordered a statewide shutdown of schools early in the pandemic, and then tried to bully districts into remaining closed when school was scheduled to start in the fall. The union-controlled boards of education in large districts like the Jefferson County Public Schools chose to keep schools closed almost the entire year until pressure from the legislature resulted in a partial reopening.
This school year, Beshear continued his overreach by trying to force all schools to require children to wear masks. Then, when he was reined in by the state legislature, local boards of education voluntarily pandered to discredited public health entities and left the mask requirements in place, despite no meaningful scientific evidence that such mandates protect children from the spread of COVID.
Meanwhile, parents expressing legitimate concerns about how critical race theory may be influencing what is taught in schools have been labeled by the National School Boards Association and the federal government as "domestic terrorists."
To add insult to all of these injuries, the education establishment in Kentucky has fought ferociously to stop parents from having other options in where their children can attend school. Numerous districts used taxpayer money to launch a lawsuit to stop Kentucky's new education opportunities account (EOA) law, which provides privately-funded scholarships to help eligible families access education supports, including private school tuition, and other services that could potentially apply to homeschooling families.
Earlier this month, Andy Beshear's favorite liberal judge struck down the law in a ridiculous ruling that will ultimately be overturned on appeal. It was a temporary victory for the education establishment and its schooling monopoly, and a temporary defeat for Kentucky parents and children. Nonetheless, in the long run, families will prevail.
The exodus of families from the public schools should be a wakeup call to educators. Schools must become more responsive to parental concerns, be transparent about what students are learning, and recognize that education dollars are for students, not systems, or families will continue voting with their feet.
And policymakers should empower parents with more options. Kentucky's EOA law should be expanded, charter schools should be funded, and ultimately education funding should follow students to the school of their parents' choice, including to purchase textbooks, curricular materials, and other costs associated with homeschooling.
A sleeping giant has been awakened. It's time for Kentucky's education system to become accountable to the families it serves.
Gary Houchens, PhD is a professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University. He serves as a policy advisor for Commonwealth Educational Opportunities.