Ep. 307: Kentucky Private School Survey

March 9, 2022

Drew Catt, director of state research and special projects at EdChoice, sits down with co-author John Kristof and colleague, Jordan Zachary. They are joined by Andy Vandiver, President of EdChoice, Kentucky to discuss the results of a recent survey of Kentucky private schools.

Drew Catt Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Drew Catt, director of state research and special projects at EdChoice. And today we’ll be discussing the results of a recent survey of Kentucky private schools. I’m joined today by my co-author of the study, John Kristof, along with our colleague, Jordan Zachary here at EdChoice, as well as Andy Vandiver, who is president of EdChoice Kentucky. Gentlemen, welcome to the podcast.

Andy Vandiver: Hey, thanks for having me.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So before we really get into the results, really, Andy, it’s your survey. Just to give the setup, this was a survey that EdChoice Kentucky conducted. The EdChoice here based in Indianapolis, no official relationship between the two organizations. John and I actually did the analysis and did the write up of the brief. So yeah, Andy, what was the impetus of the survey in the first place? And maybe perhaps you can set the stage by providing really some local context, really, but what’s happening in Kentucky? What choices are available? What programs can private schools currently participate in or the programs that are kind of getting off the ground?

Andy Vandiver: Well, we’ve been working on school choice in Kentucky for several years. Our first school choice bill that I know of was introduced in the late ’90s. Of course, I was in high school at the time, so I was not advocating for it. But I’ve been working on the issue since 2014. What I’ve found is there’s just really a lot of misinformation about private schooling in Kentucky. People tend to think that private schools are expensive, they’re exclusive, there’s none in rural areas and we don’t do enough to provide financial assistance to students as is with current tuition assistance programs. And so that was some of the information we hoped to gather from this survey is just to debunk some of those myths because I think as you debunk those myths, the questions on the policy of passing a program like the Education Opportunity Account Act that we passed this last year, I think the arguments we make become more compelling once people have a better understanding of the environment as it exist right now.

Drew Catt: Jordan, can you talk a little bit about the program that is being implemented in Kentucky and some of the nuances that exist in terms of geographic location and eligibility?

Jordan Zachary: Sure. Andy referenced the program, the Education Opportunities Act. It’s a program available for L students in households making 175% of three in reduced price lunch income threshold, or less than that. It’s a program where you could use either for tuition or for wraparound services. These types of services could be curriculum, textbooks, tutoring, and so on. As far as geographic limitations, which you did get into, currently the program is not available statewide, though that is something that advocates like Andy and others have been working on to expand the program and make it available. So currently the counties that the program is available for are Jefferson, Fayette, Kenton, Boone, Campbell, Hardin, Daviess, and Warren counties.

Drew Catt: And really specific to private school tuition, it’s interesting to kind of dive into some of the answers that we got. So we did ask the private schools, did you even know that this program existed? Do you know that it passed? And more than four out of five private schools were aware that the program did exist or was introduced and the act went into place. And this is a number that, I mean, I’ve been doing private school surveys for over a dozen states. I’ve been doing these for almost a decade now. This is the highest number I’ve ever seen. 97% of private schools would participate in the program if it were available in their county, or I guess since it’s really the students that have to be in the county. Really 97% of schools would participate. And knowing the geographic limitations that may exist in the state, some students may have to travel two to three hours to get to one of those schools that’s further away, but yeah, 97% of schools would participate. John, kind of first time on one of these private school surveys, what did you make of that and kind of what results popped out to you?

John Kristof: Yeah, I mean, clearly there is high interest from private schools in Kentucky in a program like this. So a combination of there being pretty decent awareness of this program, I would say, with a pretty clear majority saying that they were aware of the Education Opportunities Accounts, 83%. And then 97% saying that, hey, if this was available where we exist, we absolutely would take advantage of this program. There is both high awareness and high demand. And so that tells me that there’s opportunity for growth here in a lot of ways kind of as Jordan was talking about earlier there. Maybe there’s interest in expanding these kinds of programs and not all private school students exist in the handful of counties that the program’s been limited to. The benefits and freedom and opportunity of choice are also not restricted to certain urban areas and things like that. So definitely room for growth and an assumption that, hey, if the effort was taken to expand eligibility, that there would be a lot of schools and by extension a lot of students across the state who would take advantage of it. I think that’s encouraging and worth keeping in mind when we’re talking about school choice in Kentucky.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And in terms of capacity, EdChoice Kentucky asked about enrollment capacity and we were able to crunch the numbers and found that private schools in Kentucky have at least 6,600 open seats with a projected estimate closer to almost 20,000. Just the caveat of not every educational setting has to be physical brick and mortar school. And that’s kind of where, at least nationwide ESAs kind of have been moving, although the Kentucky program does currently limit to the brick and mortar private school location with its ESA program. Andy, one of the misnomers or I guess myths that you were talking about is how much private schools charge. My familiarity with private schools in Kentucky were friends from college who went to some of the elite Catholic schools in the Louisville area. However, the actual median, the median school that responded to the survey, tuition and fees were about $6,200, which is not the $10,000+ that I had heard about from some of these other schools. So really what did you think of the $6,200 being that median amount? And especially we did break out into some of the ranges, and seeing what some of the schools do charge and kind of seeing that there are schools at both ends of the spectrum, both that charge high amounts and that charge relatively low amounts?

Andy Vandiver: Yeah. And just to come back to something, the Education Opportunity Account Act isn’t just for brick and mortar schools, it covers up to 14 different educational services. So you could potentially use this program for homeschool families, for micro schools. They could use the technology aspects of it, tutoring services, special needs therapies. So it really helps a wide variety of students. And those services are actually available statewide. It’s just the tuition assistance part that is limit to the largest counties. And that’s unfortunate because we do have a lot of great schools in our rural counties that really could serve some students with this program and we hope to get it expanded someday. But as far as the tuition goes, yeah, you can point to a handful of schools in Kentucky that may have tuition over $20,000 a year. And those schools from what I hear do a great job and families make that choice and that’s fine. I think those schools offer a lot of tuition assistance to needy families, but they’re not the norm. You’re talking a lot of schools that charge $5,000, even less than $4,000 a year. And that is really affordable to a lot of families. But at the same time, there are still families that even at that price point, they need a little bit more help. Something that really people ignore or I’ve heard certain folks who are opponents say, “Well, you can raise money now, you don’t need tax credit program. You don’t need this type of school choice program. Schools can go out and raise donations and provide tuition assistance now.” Well, they do do that now and there’s still a lot more demand, there’s still a lot more need than we’re able to fulfill. And so while we work really hard to make our schools accessible to everyone, it’s still a reality that there’s a lot of families who are left out.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I think there was one school that responded, which not naming any names because it’s related to this data point specifically, but there was one school that said that they don’t charge tuition because they are able to do the fundraising in-house to be able to do that. But again, you have to think that a lot of especially smaller private schools just don’t have a development team, let alone the development capacity in order to do that type of fundraising. So yeah, I can see a lot of especially smaller private schools that would tentatively benefit from being involved in a program such as this.

Jordan Zachary: Yeah. Drew, I just wanted to chime in because I think Andy and you both touched upon something great. When I looked through the survey and I saw 69% of private schools provide some form of assistance, and then I look at the award for the Opportunity Act, the Education Opportunity Accounts, it can be up to $4,700, and while we mentioned the average tuition is $6,200. So that gets students over two thirds of the way there more than that it really puts a situation where you’re able to have these private schools incentivized to help make up that difference and help them get these students in their school. So it’s almost like a partnership and it’s just a really wonderful, complimentary type relationship that I see from these findings.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And I’ve heard anecdotally from one-on-one interviews that I’ve done with principals and school leaders that a lot of them that do participate in private school choice programs still do the fundraising and try to get kind of the scholarship dollars still for the families that are on the edge of the income limit for the program. Since there is an income limit for so many of these programs, a family that is just over the limit, they still may not be able to financially afford footing the entire tuition bill. So a lot of these schools see participation in the program as a way to be able to help more children or to be able to help the students that they have and to be able to fully address their family’s financial needs.

John Kristof: And that’s a really good point. As one of the two people here who did the analysis, I want to like share to people who haven’t read this report yet. Exactly what we’re looking at with the numbers here. If you were eligible for this program as it’s written right now and your child is younger than high school age, 88% of middle schools, 90% of elementary schools, 93% of kindergartens have stated, again, not taking financial aid provided into account, have tuition and fees under $10,000 a year. That number is significant because that is about how much money that Kentucky already spends per child on education if they were going to a regular public school. So this idea of fundraising and you can just raise the money yourself anyway in some senses is asking for funding twice so because the money is there, the question is where the money should go. If the money is dedicated to a child’s education and the child is going to a private school for whatever reason, can the money instead be devoted to where they’re receiving their education? Again, I’ll just repeat the phrase. The money is there. The money as it currently is, if all of that money was given to the child’s education wherever the child goes, it would cover tuition and fees at nine out of 10 K-8 schools in Kentucky. High schools can be more expensive, but that amount would still cover two thirds of private high schools in Kentucky.

Drew Catt: And I think that’s something important to point out for those who don’t have to worry about paying tuition and fees for their children’s K-12 educational endeavor, that in almost every state high schools are more expensive than K-8. So yeah, I think pointing out that difference is important. Another big misconception of private schools that I’ve heard time and time again in almost every single state that I’ve done work in is that private schools don’t really serve students with special needs. Thankfully there was a question on the survey that got right at that myth. And in fact, based on the private schools in Kentucky that responded to the survey, private schools in Kentucky, as a proportion of total student bodies, serve proportionally more students with special needs than public schools in Kentucky do. Andy, did that surprise you at all and is that something that you expected to see and what did you really make of it?

Andy Vandiver: Yeah. We don’t know what the overall statistics are, but you’re talking a pretty good sample size here of schools who did participate do offer a lot to students with special needs. And that’s such a myth that our schools don’t. You have a variety of students with needs that, nothing against the public schools, they just can’t be served there. And I think families feel more comfortable where they’re going to get the individualized attention or the curriculum, or they’re just afraid their child’s going to fall through the cracks. We have some wonderful schools that are specifically dedicated to students with special needs, or I know of a school that does a lot to mainstream students with down syndrome. There’s really some wonderful work being done. I think one great thing about school choice is it’s not just about the students being able to choose, but you’re allowing educators to set up a school to pursue their passions, and that passion may be serving students specifically with special needs. That’s really exciting. It’s always fun. We’ll have sometimes an opponent or maybe just a skeptical legislator who will say, where are students with special needs going to go? I’m able to provide them statistics, sometimes depending on where they’re at of, “Well, here’s what the schools in your area are currently doing. Were you aware that there’s over 1,000 students in the Diocese of Covington that have an IEP?” Things like that are really powerful. Not every school’s going to work for every child. We know that. Public schools do have resources they can provide for families, but I think that a mistake can be made where people try to box in parents with students with special needs and say, “Well, the public school bias from nature is going to be best for your kid and therefore you have to go there.” We’re actually going to be watching out for you to make sure you don’t make a bad choice by going to a private school when it really should be that parent’s choice. I know a lot of parents who feel that way.

Drew Catt: Yeah. This is something that I haven’t talked a lot about to be honest, and it’s something that I kind of have found out by digging into finances and statutes, and that I believe in every single state, the students with the highest level of need that are in the public schools, the public district school contracts out with a private school. So these students are going to private school at public expense and they have been since the ’70s. These are programs that are in place. So to hear someone say private schools can’t or won’t serve students with special needs, it’s like, well, they’ve been doing a pretty good job at it and the students with the highest level of needs in your state have been most likely going to private schools for several years now.

Andy Vandiver: Just some of the personal stories I hear from parents, I don’t want to make light of the work, and you have a lot of folks in the public schools that go into special education. It’s very difficult work. What you’ll hear the opponent school choice say is, “Well, we’re open to all students. We serve all students.” And while, yeah, legally you’re mandated that if a student lives in the district, you’re supposed to give them an education, parents often dispute whether their child is receiving the services that’s adequate for their children. And sometimes the districts say, “Well, this should be the services and no more.” And sometimes parents say, “Well, no, my child needs something different.” I just hear from parents so many times where they said, “I’ve gone through all the channels in my district. I’ve made the appeals, I’ve done this and all the process. And at the end of it, I don’t feel my child’s getting the education they need and they need to go somewhere else.” That’s what makes me really hopeful about this program is for parents like that who just need that extra help that they’re going to be able to get it somewhere else.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It’s really fascinating. Very, very limited research that has been done around this. Sovan, if you’re listening, please email me if I misstate this since this is your research. So there was a voucher program in Louisiana that found the students with an IEP were actually significantly likely to be de-identified participating in the private school choice program. So it’ll really be interesting to see what happens in Kentucky and what research can or cannot be done. But let’s get back to the schools since this is what we’re talking about today. The one thing that really surprised me, knowing we just talked about the Catholic schools, especially in the Louisville area, is how old or I guess how long some of these private schools have been around. More than a third of the schools that responded to our survey have been around for more than a century. I think that really speaks to the history of private schooling in the state of Kentucky. Andy, I’m really interested. That surprised me. Was that something that surprised you at all seeing more than a third of the responding schools operating that long?

Andy Vandiver: It’s a surprise, I think, for that level. But I do know of some particular schools that really go far back. Kentucky has a really interesting history. I don’t think we’ve ever been a predominantly Catholic state. I think if you look at the data, we are predominantly not only a protestant state but I think Southern Baptist is probably the biggest denomination. We have about 10% of the public in Kentucky is Catholic, and those populations tend to be to the Northern parts of the state. But just historically, it’s interesting. There’s a book, I believe it may be called A History of Education in Kentucky. And it’s just, as it sounds, it’s a book that goes from the very beginning of the public education system in Kentucky to modern day. There was a statistic in there that really jumped out to me. I believe it was something along the lines of two thirds of kids right around the time of the civil war were being educated in Catholic schools in Kentucky, which was really fascinating for a state that I don’t think of historically as being a very Catholic state. We’ve had that role from the very beginning, predating the public school system, that we’ve had schools serving students that have deep ties into the communities. I don’t know if it has a whole lot of impact on our policy debate, but I think just culturally it’s a part of Kentucky, it’s part of who we are, that these pride schools have just had that be a role and it’s not just Catholic schools, there’s some protestant schools, missionary schools, whether they’re Methodist or Baptist, that had big roles in our Eastern part of the state that’s very economically depressed that have played historically a really rich role in forming leaders in that community but still to this day are serving students.

Drew Catt: Well, there’s one more program that I’d like to touch on before we really end this podcast. This is one that was really new to me, something that was unique, that was part of the survey that y’all conducted, Andy. And that was asking about awareness of public funding for non-public school student transportation. So if I understand correctly, Kentucky has a program setup where schools can opt in to public funding for private school students. And John, I didn’t know if you wanted to help me really dive into some of these results. So we found that compared to the EOA program where so many schools were aware that it passed, only fewer than three out of five private schools in the state were even aware that Kentucky had this program that provided public funds for private school student transportation. And then we also followed that up and asked if they would participate if it was offered in their county. And John, I didn’t know if you wanted to bring out some of those results and share some of your thoughts on that.

John Kristof: Yeah. There was much lower awareness of this funding availability than the Education Opportunity Accounts where 58% of responding schools said that they were aware of this transportation subsidy as I found that it’s called. In fairness as someone who has spent very limited time in Kentucky and myself was not very educated on this, diving into it, I’m not super surprised that there was lower awareness for this than Education Opportunity Accounts because quite frankly, there has been a lot more buzz and much more written about the new school choice program than there is about this transportation funding availability. There’s just not much written about it. It has caused controversy as any kind of sharing funding would do. But yeah, there’s an opportunity here to help schools even further just by taking advantage of something that is already there. I’m not legally familiar enough with the program to give any kinds of instructions or help on schools pursuing this for myself, but I think it is important for schools to recognize that there is help available for you to get students to your school. I think this is maybe especially important in the context of this new program is geographically limited, there maybe is a newer sense of how do we get students to come to our school. There is this funding help available for furthering out how it works. So I would encourage schools to do a little bit of research if this is the first time that they’ve heard of this funding availability and take advantage of it because it seems like it’s helped a lot of schools before. It helps a lot of students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend the school. And that could be for financial reasons or because of parent schedules, all sorts of things. So yeah, it’s really good to know that this exists. So I encourage schools to check it out if you’re one of the 44% who didn’t know.

Andy Vandiver: It’s really interesting history on the round of programs. I believe the original law was passed in the 1980s and actually originally the money went directly to the schools. The idea was that there was, I believe, a little girl who was hit by a car walking to a private school and she passed away. That spurred lawmakers to do a health and safety measure of funding transportation of private schools. Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court struck that down as being direct public dollars to a private school, which was prohibited under the constitution. So the legislators came back, reworked the program and the money actually goes to the counties and the counties can decide to opt into the program. So that’s where the opting in comes in, that the county must opt in and then the schools within that county can participate. And usually the county will contract with the local school district. And right now it is a program that’s under EOI. I believe around 10 counties participate out of our 120 counties. Now, some of these are larger counties, but I think we could probably do a lot more with this, but I find often, this is why we include in the surveys. I’ll have people reach out and say, “Hey, I hear they’re doing busing in such and such county. I had no idea this program existed.” And sometimes these are private school administrators who have been in the business of education for decades and they had never heard about this program. And so I wanted to get more of a feel for the awareness of it. One of the big points that the opposition tries to make is, well, there’s no transportation for students under the Education Opportunity Account Act, which isn’t true, but there’s a point that, well, you might have a student who wants to participate but they can’t get to the school that they’d like to choose, I always start with the position that if families want to choose that school, they’re going to find a way. But as policy makers, we should try to do what we can to make that easier for families. And if you really want to make it easier, then why don’t you take a look at the subsidy, maybe put more money into the bus subsidy if that’s your real concern. Now, I think a lot of times it’s just a pretext for opposing school choice and that’s unfortunate. But if your real concern is we don’t have enough transportation available, well, we have an existing program that you could put more funding in. I think we’re funded about three and a half million dollars a year right now, which is just a minuscule amount of money. There could be a potential for growing that program over time and really helping some more families. It’s always so strange to me that we talk about transportation this way. A lot of times you’ll hear folks talk about something like Medicaid. If I were to say, well, we don’t really have a lot of access to doctors or even transportation to a doctor’s office, I don’t think the supporters of Medicaid would say, “Well, we just got to stop doing Medicaid. We can’t do that anymore.” They would say, “No, no, we got to work on this problem of getting families access.” And I think it’s the same thing on education. The first step is to pass a school choice law, give families that adoption. And then if there is a question about access, then there’s substantive things that we can do to give families access and this is one of those things that we could do more of.

Drew Catt: Okay. Well, thank you all for taking the time, really being on this podcast and talking about the results from this survey of private schools in Kentucky and talking about the OEA program. It’s been a pleasure. I’ve learned a lot through working on this survey. So Andy, thank you a lot for the opportunity for John and I to partner with y’all and work on the analysis. To all of our listeners out there, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. My guests have been Andy Vandiver, John Kristof, and Jordan Zachary. And with that, I will bid you farewell. Make sure to find us everywhere you find your podcast. Make sure to subscribe. Find us on all the social. We are @edchoice, except for TikTok. If that’s more of your thing, we are edchoiceofficial. So come dance with us and learn what there is to learn on the TikTok. With that, thank you very much and take care. See you soon.