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Let parents use SEEK dollars for online learning options

Numerous surveys indicate trepidation among parents about whether public schools are the best places for their children in a COVID-19 world.

A recent USA Today survey, for example, revealed 60% of parents indicate they’re now likely to pursue at-home learning options even if public schools reopen; 46% worry their children have fallen behind since the shutdown began.

Evidence from across the commonwealth also identifies specific concerns about ground lost during the pandemic and what public education’s new normal will look like when – if – schools reopen.

Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) data indicate the state’s highest non-traditional instruction (NTI) student participation rate – which occurred during the first month of the shutdown at the end of last school year – was 92%, meaning around 52,000 public school students failed to participate at all in NTI provided by their districts.

By the ninth week, statewide participation slid to 87 percent, indicating 84,000 students – more than are enrolled at all but one of Kentucky’s 172 school districts – were unserved.

In some places, the slide was much worse.

NTI participation in Fayette County, the commonwealth’s second-largest district, dwindled from 85% during the first week it was implemented to only 58% by the eighth week.

Drops in participation over time indicate Kentucky’s traditional education system wasn’t winning the battle for successful NTI innovation.

Going forward, given the uncertainty about COVID-19, Kentucky must craft education policies which move our system out of the assembly-line-model of the past in ways that entice students to restart and successfully complete the schooling necessary for their achievement in a 21st-century world.

While local districts must – and likely will – improve their NTI products, the right policy changes now could help students who need different opportunities to connect with already-proven public school programs or assist parents in affording other nonpublic offerings which work best for their children.

Both can happen with an ounce of leadership and minimum changes.

For example, why not give more Kentucky students an opportunity to enroll in the Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning (BAVEL), an existing online public school program for grades 6-12 operated out of Glasgow?

BAVEL during its 15-year tenure has enabled thousands of students statewide to get back on track after being derailed in their educational pursuits while graduating hundreds who otherwise would have dropped out altogether.

The school is set up to meet individual students’ various needs – whether that means enrolling in a full-year educational track or supplementing a traditional district program with something like an Advanced Placement or high school physics course local districts may not be able to afford to offer.

Another option provided by BAVEL allows private or public school students to enroll in certain classes, including dual-credit courses. But parents must pay for those sessions.

Therein lies the catch with BAVEL.

Currently, students left behind during this pandemic must get local school-board approval to transfer to BAVEL if their parents are to avoid a tuition charge.

However, bureaucratic superintendents and school-board politicians often demonstrate little enthusiasm about allowing students to transfer since at least $4,000 – the portion of SEEK funding districts receive, on average, for each pupil enrolled – follows transfers to BAVEL.

So, isn’t this the time to remove hoops students must jump through if they don’t happen to live in Barren County but for whom BAVEL is the right fit?

A pandemic seems like an ideal opportunity to end education-bounty hunters’ quest to restrict SEEK dollars from their intended use: educating students at a school that works best for them.

Why not find a way to let parents choose where SEEK money goes, including if they want to enroll their children in BAVEL courses – especially with the likelihood of heightened demand for choice options in the future, particularly while district-run NTI programs remain largely unproven?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being published by newspapers statewide.

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