Helping parents with their kids’ schooling

Published 4:14 pm Wednesday, January 20, 2021

By John Garen and Gary W. Houchens

In 2020, parents grew increasingly frustrated with school closings and the apparent inability of many public schools to adequately deal with the COVID crisis. Children are falling behind academically and socially.

Parents hurt when their kids struggle and, unfortunately, many schools have generally failed to provide relief. Fundamentally, parents need alternatives to what the school system offers.

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Even in normal times, too many families are assigned to dysfunctional schools or ones that are a poor fit for their children. This is particularly true of disadvantaged families who are unable to afford private school or buy a house in their desired public school zone.

Unfortunately, this is a long-standing problem, and it’s not the result of underfunded public schools.

As indicated in a recent report by John Garen, co-author of this column, from 1990 to 2019 per-pupil funding for K-12 rose by 80% after inflation. It’s now over $14,000 per student and exceeds the tuition of most private schools in Kentucky. Moreover, funding rose virtually every year during this time span, except for the years following the Great Recession.

However, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores rose only by small amounts since the early to mid-1990s, and they haven’t risen at all in the last decade. Even with Kentucky’s own testing system, about one-fifth of Kentucky students score in the lowest possible category (“novice”) for 4th and 8th-grade reading and math, and it’s worse on the NAEP tests.

This likely means that at least 10,000 Kentucky 4th graders cannot read. The percent of Blacks who score as low is about 40%, roughly double that of students as a whole.

Furthermore, in the political tumult of 2020 and now 2021, parents have discovered problems with curriculum and instructional practices in many schools. As column co-author Gary Houchens has documented elsewhere, Kentucky’s social studies standards are far too vague to adequately train students in the level of civic knowledge our world now requires, and leaves students vulnerable to teachers who want to promote various political ideologies in the classroom.

There are good schools and programs and many excellent teachers in Kentucky, but the system has faltered for a long time, failing students, parents, and teachers themselves. It’s expensive, has failed to produce good academic results, and leaves kids vulnerable to political indoctrination.

Sadly, the K-12 system seems to have become a big public bureaucracy ill-suited to adapt to the changing and heterogeneous needs of children and families.

Parents need options that are not forthcoming from the present system.

One option for low-income families is a scholarship tax credit program in which private donors finance scholarships for children of eligible families to attend nonpublic schools. House Bill 149 and Senate Bill 25 now under consideration by the Kentucky General Assembly will establish such a program through the creation of Education Opportunity Accounts that also can be used by eligible students to access additional public school options, online learning programs, tutoring services, therapy programs, transportation to and from school and more.

Through HB 149/SB 25 parents can seek alternatives – such as private schools, tutors, micro-schools, or even other public school programs like computers or AP exam fees — that might be a better fit for their children or help them better provide things their children need to succeed.

Similar programs in 18 other states have proven to increase high-quality education options for children and benefit students’ long-term learning.

Charter schools, which are independently-operated public schools, are another proven, effective method for increasing achievement for students of poverty and students of color, especially in urban communities. Kentucky passed a charter school bill in 2017 but hasn’t created a mechanism for education dollars to follow charter students to their school of choice.

With Kentucky’s two largest school districts still unwilling to consider even a hybrid learning plan, it’s past time for Kentucky to empower families with charter school options as well, especially virtual charter schools which could serve students all over the state and be either a full- or part-time option.

Finally, Kentucky should embrace an open public school enrollment plan whereby students can enroll in any public school of their choice where a seat is available, even if they reside in another district, and state education dollars should follow them. Current Kentucky law privileges large county districts that often bar the door to prevent students from enrolling in a nearby independent district, even if that school is a better fit.

The COVID crisis of 2020 made it clear how important it is to parents that they have multiple options for educating their children. Now is the time to demand legislators make it happen.

John Garen, Ph.D., is the BB&T Professor of Economics in the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky.

Gary W. Houchens, Ph.D., is a professor of Educational Administration, Leadership and Research at Western Kentucky University and a former member of the Kentucky Board of Education.
Both are members of the Bluegrass Institute Board of Scholars.