Parents Turn to Private Schools in Kentucky

Published February 1, 1998

Despite being the beneficiaries of far-reaching education reforms widely heralded as a model for other states, Kentucky’s public schools are losing rather than gaining “market share” of the state’s student population. According to a new study, private school enrollment trends suggest that Kentucky’s public schools may be less competitive now, after the reforms, than they were before the reforms were implemented.

Coming as a result of a state supreme court order to restructure the state’s public school funding system, the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, or KERA, boosted real per-pupil spending by 21 percent over five years and slashed funding differences among school districts by half. Those changes, together with other curriculum and testing reforms, were expected to lift school and student performance.

But an analysis of private school enrollment in Kentucky shows that an increasing number of parents are voting with their feet, leaving the public school system in favor of private schools. The analysis, conducted by the Dayton, Ohio-based Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, reports that the percentage of students educated in private schools increased from a low of 10.8 percent in 1993 to 11.5 percent in 1996. That increase reversed a consistent and steady eight-year decline.

“If the reforms had been successful, Kentucky’s public schools should have become more competitive and increased their market share, especially in the later years as KERA’s impacts became more evident,” note the study’s authors.

In another recent study of KERA, Buckeye Institute Vice President for Research Sam Staley concluded that “Kentucky is not the model for change.” Based on early evidence, the reform program, he says, “has done little more than narrow spending gaps” with “no perceptible impact on student achievement.”

It was in 1993 that state auditors first began to uncover evidence that the state’s cash bonus system for school improvements had led to highly subjective assessments of student portfolios and to cheating by teachers to improve student test scores. (See “Teachers Cheat in Kentucky,” School Reform News, November 1997.)

“An alternative that avoids the costly and pervasive bureaucracy implicit in KERA is one where dollars follow students to whatever schools they choose,” says Staley. “This is a ‘child-centered’ approach to education reform where accountability is imbedded in school funding.”