Kentuckians Favor Vouchers and Tax Credits

Published August 1, 2007

A new survey commissioned by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a Kentucky free-market think tank, confirms most state residents believe “parents should have more choice in determining where their children attend school.”

While 79 percent of the 493 respondents support the concept of choice, the survey reveals most Kentuckians are unfamiliar with the educational options available in other states. Only 4 percent of respondents were “very familiar” with charter schools, and 65 percent said they were “not familiar” with vouchers.

Strong Support

When given a short description of four types of school choice–charters, vouchers, tax credits, and parent-controlled open-enrollment agreements–the amount of support expressed for most types of choice nearly matched the lack of familiarity expressed before respondents received the descriptions.

For example, while 65 percent of respondents were “not familiar” with vouchers, 64 percent agreed, after receiving a one-sentence description, that “education vouchers would be good for Kentucky education.”

The random telephone survey–likely the first statewide school choice poll in Kentucky history–was conducted between March 11 and April 1. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points and was conducted by a team of researchers working with Dr. Larry M. Caillouet, an associate professor of communications at Western Kentucky University.

Choice Information

Those results don’t surprise Adam Schaeffer, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

“People do like the idea of choice, generally speaking, in most areas of public policies. In education, it’s no different,” Schaeffer said. “However, most people don’t know a whole lot about policy. After all, you can poll people on who the vice president is, and many won’t know. It’s amazing how little people know off the top of their head about some of these issues.”

Nearly 70 percent of respondents favored allowing parents to obtain a tax refund equal to the amount of tuition they might pay to send their child to a school outside their residential school district.

Schaeffer said that pattern agrees with surveys conducted in other states.

“It’s obviously a tax reduction, which people tend to like,” Schaeffer said. “Another consistent thing is that people don’t like government handouts for special groups. Sometimes the voucher question makes it sound like that–some special benefit for those who have chosen a private school.”

Open-Enrollment Policies

Of all the school choice options, respondents were most favorable to open-enrollment agreements, which allow parents to choose public schools for their children outside of their residential districts. Nearly 73 percent said they supported open-enrollment policies.

While Kentucky currently has a form of open enrollment, the option is controlled by local education bureaucrats rather than by parents.

State law requires signed agreements between participating districts before releasing funds to follow students to another district. Without such funding, parents who want to send their children to a different district must pay tuition.

Parents in several Kentucky school districts–including in Jackson and Murray, where transfer policies have become controversial in recent years–currently must pay tuition in addition to their tax dollars to take advantage of the open-enrollment option by sending their children to a school outside their residential district. Local school officials either restrict or will not consent to continue the popular open-enrollment programs without the extra tuition payment.

Bureaucratic Interference

Bluegrass Institute education analyst Richard Innes said while open-enrollment agreements are “a great option,” the state’s current policy is inadequate and doesn’t consider children’s best interests. He said a true statewide open-enrollment choice program should restrict school officials’ ability to interfere.

“It needs to be more extensively reworked to eliminate the hang-ups that the Kentucky Department of Education has thrown into the works that have severely restricted these choice options in recent years,” Innes said. “The Kentucky Education Reform Act mandates that the state does what’s in the best interest of the child. If the department really was doing that, Kentucky’s parents would already have these unrestricted district-by-district transfer options.”

Innes said survey respondents may have understood open-enrollment agreements better than other options because Kentucky is a rural state.

“It may very well be that for parents in rural areas [open enrollment] may represent at least the best short-term option,” Innes said. “Many of these areas don’t offer parents a lot of choices, such as a large number of private schools.”

Poor Reporting

State education department officials claim parents don’t take advantage of choice options already made available as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but Innes said that’s “a terrible misrepresentation.”

Innes said the department doesn’t adequately inform parents of their choices, and it drags its feet on reporting test scores so many parents don’t get sufficient notice of their choice options before the school year begins.

“Parents have to know they have the right to choose before they can exercise it,” Innes said. “Basically, the Kentucky Department of Education has done just about everything in its power to fight NCLB choice.”

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

For more information …

“School Choice Survey,” by Dr. Larry Caillouet and Kalisa Hauschen, published April 30, 2007 by the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #21466.