by Adam Beam
High quality early childhood education has long been understood to be an important investment with a significant return. While our state has done more in recent years to expand access to preschool and full-day kindergarten, a new report from the state Legislative Research Commission shows there is real need for additional investments.
The report describes how effective our state’s preschool program is at preparing children for kindergarten — especially those from low-income households or who have disabilities. However, while full-day preschool is shown to be most effective just 40 percent of Kentucky school districts offer more than a half-day preschool program, largely due to funding constraints.
Kentucky’s public school districts are required to provide free preschool for three-year-olds and four-year-olds with disabilities and four-year-olds with household incomes up to 160 percent of poverty. For all other four-year-olds interested in enrolling, school districts can enroll students as space permits and may charge tuition, which 61 did in 2017. Tuition rate range from $900 to $5,550 a year, and 4 schools tie tuition rates to parental income. Two districts, Lee County and Wolfe County, do not currently provide preschool services but instead serve preschool students by contracting with their local Head Start providers.
Kentucky Preschool Programs Effective
The new report shows Kentucky’s preschool program is effective at preparing students for kindergarten:
- Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) preschool students had higher kindergarten readiness rates compared to their non-preschool counterparts by approximately 15 percentage points, and preschool students receiving special education services (Individual Education Plan (IEP) students) had higher rates of kindergarten readiness than non-preschool IEP students by roughly 6 percentage points.
- Kindergarten readiness rates for state-funded preschool students receiving FRPL or special education services are almost twice as high as the readiness rates of FRPL and IEP students that listed only “home” as their prior setting.
- Among FRPL students with a prior setting of preschool alone, a slightly larger share of African American students were ready for kindergarten than white students. This is an important data point as further down the line in school there are significant achievement gaps between these groups. The report recommends the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) engage in a longitudinal assessment of the relationships between kindergarten readiness and K-PREP, the standardized assessment in Kentucky for grades 3 through 8, and other indicators of future academic success.
However, it is important to note that for Hispanic/Latino students even preschool attendance unfortunately doesn’t mitigate the achievement gap for kindergarten readiness — an important area for further investigation. It is also notable that less than half of all Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students participate in state-funded preschool despite more than 80 percent qualifying for FRPL. The report recommends school districts, with support and guidance from KDE, complete a needs assessment analysis to determine whether the educational needs of preschool-aged LEP students are being met and to explore possible resources to assist in meeting their needs.
Full-Day Preschool Most Effective but Offered at Less Than Half of Districts
Preschool programs in Kentucky can be either half-day (a minimum of 2.5 hours of classroom time each day) or full-day. Half-day preschool can be five days a week or four days with the fifth day used to provide children and families with services such as home visits or special experiences for children. However, another option is for districts to have a locally designed option approved by the commissioner of education.
Preschool has a particularly positive impact on students who attend for more than 16 hours a week. The average rate of kindergarten readiness in districts with more than 16 hours of scheduled preschool time per week is 13 percentage points higher than in districts with less than 12 hours of preschool per week (54.9 percent compared to 41.9 percent). However, just 40 percent are providing full-day preschool 4 or 5 days a week (districts are only required to offer a half-day program four days per week).
At the same time that it would be beneficial to Kentucky kids for more schools to offer full-day preschool, inadequate funding is a serious concern for many districts. According to the report, districts reported spending $4,395 more per child on average than they received from the preschool funds allocated by the General Assembly. The state does not provide funds for preschool student transportation — which costs an average of $1,035 per preschool student — as districts are not required to provide transportation to preschool students. However, all but 13 schools do provide transportation, which includes being required to provide a driver’s assistant for every bus that transports preschool students. Districts that offer full-day preschool have higher transportation costs. The report notes: “Districts must currently cover these transportation expenses with no funding, which either could result in cuts to other services provided to preschool students or the use of general fund dollars that could have otherwise been spent on supports to other K-12 program initiatives.”
For cost reasons, seven districts currently have only a preschool program consisting of two full days (six hours each day). Most of these districts specifically said they would be able to reduce transportation costs and salaries as a result — with 1 district reportedly saving $198,000 per year and the other, which served fewer students, claiming they would save $52,000 a year. The report notes there may be new cost pressures in the near future due to changes in the federal Head Start program that will result in more students instead attending state-funded preschool. New performance standards set by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services require that if a Head Start program operates in a service area with high quality publicly funded full-day preschool, the Head Start program must prioritize serving young children; this means many Head Start programs will have to shift their funding slots from four-year-olds to three-year-old Early Head Start children. In addition, Head Start will not be allowed to offer double sessions. As result, public preschool programs should expect to serve more four-year-old students.
It is also important to note districts that are able to offer daycare to preschoolers have better enrollment. Some school districts have had challenges recruiting preschool students despite increased access due to changes in the income requirements (most recently by increasing eligibility from 150 percent of poverty to 160 percent); overall preschool enrollment has actually declined. Just 41 districts out of 167 that responded to a survey question reported they offer some form of preschool combined with daycare services in at least some of the schools in their district.
Investments in full-day kindergarten pay off. According to the report, “Students who attend full-day kindergarten were 1.08 times more likely to score proficient or better on the 3rd grade K-PREP reading test and 1.12 times more likely to score proficient or better on the 3rd grade K-PREP math test when controlling for demographic variables.” These findings are statistically significant and consistent with other research on the topic.
However, some districts aren’t able to afford full-day kindergarten as the state only requires and provides funding for half-day, and funding cuts for K-12 education have been putting further pressure on local districts, making it difficult to maintain existing levels of services let alone do more. The report notes Kentucky has the lowest per-student kindergarten funding of all its bordering states.
Although the state requires only half-day kindergarten for three hours a day, nearly all Kentucky school districts offer full-day kindergarten:
- Just six offer half-day kindergarten.
- Four offer both full- and half-day kindergarten.
- Nine have shifted to full-day within the past seven years. The largest expense in doing so was the increase in salaries and benefits.
- Three districts switched back to half-day between 2013 and 2015 for budget reasons.
KDE is requesting an increase of $171 million dollars in the 2018-2020 budget in order to fund full-day kindergarten across the state, according to the report. The cost per-pupil to offer full-day kindergarten ranges from an estimated $844 per pupil to nearly $3,000 per pupil based on a number of district-specific factors, with the greatest costs coming from salaries and benefits. Out of 31 districts that responded to an open-ended survey question asking if the district had any additional comments related to kindergarten, 21 stated kindergarten was underfunded or the state needed to fund full-day kindergarten. The report quotes an eastern Kentucky district with a very large percentage of students receiving FRPL as responding:
“It is expensive to cover the cost of full day Kindergarten because it is only covered at 50 percent. These students need services quickly and they are funded the least. Earlier intervention is key for [kindergarten] students.”
A Western Kentucky district, with a little over half of their students living in poverty, stated:
“The half day of state unfunded kindergarten costs and the 40 percent of unfunded transportation costs seriously and negatively impacts our district. If the district did not have to bear the impact of the unfunded half day and the 40 percent loss of transportation we would be able to provide more mental and behavior[al] support for schools, more Response To Intervention (RTI) interventionists for our struggling students, lower teacher to student ratios, college and career coaches, and other very needed supports for our schools.”
Additional state funding for districts to provide full-day preschool and kindergarten, as well as supports such as child care, is critical to improving education in Kentucky. And we don’t want to go even further backward, by continuing to cut education more.
The Kentucky Justice Reinvestment Work Group, which held its third meeting this week, plans to propose criminal justice reforms in December for consideration during the 2018 General Assembly. The first step in this process involves exploring in-depth the drivers of our state’s high inmate population, with technical assistance from the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) at Community Resources for Justice — an organization that has had success helping Louisiana and Alaska identify meaningful and cost saving reforms.
Our state’s criminal justice system is certainly in need of reform. As noted by CJI, Kentucky’s prison population grew 540 percent since the late 1970s and 45 percent just since 2000. We now have the 10th highest imprisonment rate in the nation, 22 percent higher than the national average. We also have the fifth highest female imprisonment rate – almost twice as high as the national average. As of April 2017, 5 jails are over 200 percent of their rated capacity and 30 are over 140 percent. And Department of Corrections (DOC) spending grew $65 million in just 4 years between 2014 and 2017.
Key Drivers of Kentucky’s High Inmate Population
So what is driving our state’s inmate population growth? Here are some findings presented by CJI:
Increase in low-level felony offenses. Growth in low-level “non-person” felony offenses (where a person is not the victim) is a primary driver of the state’s inmate population. The graph below shows that while more serious Class C, B and A felonies did not increase during that time period, Class D felonies grew by 38 percent.
According to CJI, DOC admissions for low-level Class D felony drug possession charges alone increased 102 percent in just 5 years between 2012 and 2016.
However, it should be noted that the state expects to see an uptick in higher level felony convictions with the implementation of HB 333 passed early this year, which increases the charge for low-level heroin and fentanyl trafficking under 2 grams from a Class D felony (the lowest level felony, which carries with it a 1 to 5 year sentence) to a Class C felony (with a 5 to 10 year sentence) and moves parole eligibility from 20 percent of the sentence served to 50 percent.
Many of those incarcerated for low-level offenses are women, with female admissions growing 54 percent between 2012 and 2016 — mostly due to drug offenses or parole violations (discussed below). It is a concern that 70 percent of the total female DOC population is housed in local jails where substance abuse treatment is often not available.
Revocation of supervision. Another driver is supervision (i.e., probation and parole) being revoked for various reasons. In 2016, 61 percent of people entering jail/prison were previously on supervision. DOC admissions for parole revocations have increased 50 percent in 5 years, with increases occurring for property and drug offenses in particular. Sixty percent of the time when supervision (i.e., parole) is revoked after being released from prison it is for technical violations such as failed drug treatment.
Underutilization of alternatives to incarceration. A majority of felony convictions in Kentucky result in a prison sentence — rather than an alternative such as probation — regardless of felony class. For instance, the rate of probation granted for individuals convicted of simple drug possession (48 percent) is not much lower than for those convicted of more serious drug trafficking (61 percent for Class D trafficking and 66 percent for Class C). The graph below shows that probation rates did not go up between 2012 and 2016, at which time low-level Class D felonies went up and other more serious crimes did not.
Barriers to pretrial release. Incarcerating individuals pretrial – before they are convicted – also increases Kentucky’s inmate population. Too few individuals with felony charges are released by a judge without bail or through the Administrative Release program, which targets low- and moderate-risk offenders (although its utilization has been growing for those charged with misdemeanors).
For people awaiting trial who are detained instead of released, bail is supposed to be set based on a risk assessment to determine the potential harm of release pretrial (i.e., risk of violent actions or of fleeing). However, bail/bond amounts often do not reflect a defendant’s level of risk, and for many low-risk offenders it is not affordable. In 2016, 25 percent of District Court cases with final rulings in Kentucky were detained for longer than a week, including 31 percent of low- and moderate- risk cases. Among the factors are substantially more pretrial releases for low-risk defendants requiring a bond secured by a specific asset, and a lower share of initial bond amounts being set at small amounts; not surprisingly, release rates have declined as initial bond amounts increased.
As alluded to, data shows that in practice bond amounts do not vary by risk level, as seen in the graph below.
Even relatively small bond amounts can result in pretrial detainment. There were almost 15,000 cases where defendants were held in jail on bond amounts less than $1,000 in 2016. Meanwhile data shows the frequency of arrest for low- and moderate-risk offenders — including those charged with felonies — is very low. And research shows those detained during the pretrial period tend to have unfavorable outcomes in their court case; for instance, those who were incarcerated the entire pretrial period in Kentucky are more likely to be sentenced to jail/prison and to have longer sentences.
Other Data Trends
A few additional CJI research findings are worth mentioning here:
- There is considerable variation in these criminal justice trends by county. For instance, the growth in individuals entering jail/prison varies across the state, with 16 counties more than doubling admissions in 5 years as seen below. Non-metro regions of the state imprison at a higher rate than urban centers such as Louisville and Lexington. Potential causes of this geographic variation were not provided. Despite rhetoric that focuses on troubled communities rather than criminal justice practices, incarceration rates do not correlate with unemployment rates.
- There is also considerable geographic variation in rates of pretrial release, including for low-risk defendants, and in felony indictments — with some circuit courts indicting 10 times more cases per capita than others.
- Almost half of the state’s inmate population (49 percent) is housed in county jails. That is a concerning trend in part because compared to prisons these overcrowded jails lack the facilities needed for inmates serving longer sentences and the programs that help reduce recidivism such as addiction recovery. The DOC jail population grew 31 percent since 2012, driven by the growth in Class D felons. A related issue is major growth in prison bed use for inmates with parole revocations who were originally incarcerated for drug and property crimes — almost 6,000 current prisoners were admitted for technical violations of parole.
- CJI also notes that African Americans are overrepresented in Kentucky’s inmate population. We’ve written elsewhere about these racial disparities in our state’s criminal justice system; for instance, data from Kentucky’s Department of Public Advocacy shows African Americans are more likely than whites to be prosecuted for heroin trafficking rather than the less serious charge of possession.
What These Findings Mean
Rather than being driven by an increase in violent crime across the state (although violent crime in Louisville has increased) or even the long sentences that exist for those with higher level felonies, the data shows Kentucky is spending a significant amount of resources on lower level nonviolent offenses. And incarcerating people for committing these low-level felony crimes may cause more harm than good:
Incarceration can exacerbate recidivism. According to CJI, research shows that in general incarceration is not more effective than alternative sanctions at reducing recidivism — and for many lower-level offenders, incarceration can actually increase recidivism. In 2016, 82 percent of new DOC admissions were sentenced for nonviolent offenses, and more than 75 percent of female inmates in 2016 were sentenced for nonviolent crimes.
Higher rates of incarceration do not drive down crime. The consensus among researchers is that having more inmates behind bars has little if any effect on crime. The impact of incarceration on the national decline in crime that began in the 1990s was found to be marginal, and incarceration in the U.S. is understood to have passed the point of diminishing returns.
Guided by the data presented by CJI, the Justice Reinvestment Work Group will now split into three subgroups in order to consider questions related to possible reforms around sentencing, release and pretrial policies, and supervision. These work groups begin meeting next week, with subgroups reporting out to the full work group November 29. A report with recommendations will be adopted December 19.
See below for the policy development subgroup members and their guiding questions.
There are many misconceptions about Social Security Disability Insurance (DI). Despite recent arguments that DI is a hindrance to people’s wellbeing and the commonwealth’s economy, it is instead a vital lifeline for Kentuckians who, after working most of their lives, have their careers cut short due to a severe disability.
Natural population changes, not “culture,” caused rise in Disability Insurance
While some argue the considerable increase in DI beneficiaries in Kentucky is the result of a deficient culture that doesn’t value work, the data does not support this. The rise in DI beneficiaries in Kentucky — from 125,832 in 2000 to 203,471 in 2016 — might seem alarming, but it is actually closely related to demographic factors, including the aging of the large baby boomer population and the increase in the number of women in the workforce who have the paid work history to qualify for DI.
Older workers are simply more likely to become disabled, and there has been growth in the number of older workers as the baby boomers aged. The likelihood that a worker will collect DI doubles between ages 30 and 40, 40 and 50, and ages 50 and 60. In Kentucky, 76 percent of DI beneficiaries are between 50 and 64 years old.
Kentucky, like the nation as a whole, has been undergoing a swell of population in that age group as the youngest baby boomers began to turn 50 in the late 1990s.
- As a share of the state’s population, those 50-64 has increased 49 percent, from 13.6 percent in 1990 to 20.2 percent in 2016.
- The number of 50-64 year old Kentuckians has increased 79 percent, from 501,679 in 1990 to 896,268 in 2016.
This also means, however, that we should expect the number of DI beneficiaries to decline as more boomers reach full retirement age – and out of eligibility for DI. And that is exactly what has been happening.
After rising for a number of years, DI enrollment in Kentucky has dropped every year since 2013.
More women have joined the paid workforce in recent decades, which has also added to the growth of the program. As an increasing number of women began paying into Social Security, they became qualified to receive DI if they developed a disability. And in fact the number of men receiving DI in Kentucky grew 41 percent between 2000 and 2016, but women with DI benefits nearly doubled, at 95 percent.
Large share of Kentuckians receiving DI also explained by the nature of our workforce
Some point to Kentucky’s high number of DI beneficiaries compared to other states as a reason for concern. However, most of the variation among states can be largely explained by four factors: a less educated workforce, an older workforce, fewer immigrants (as most immigrants do not qualify for DI) and an industry-based economy (including mining) that involves more physical wear and tear. Kentucky ranks high in these categories compared to other states:
- 84.5 percent of Kentuckians aged 25 or older completed at least a high school degree (3rd worst in the U.S.).
- The median age in Kentucky is 38.5 years old (18th oldest in the U.S.).
- Only 3.1 percent of Kentuckians are foreign-born (6th lowest in the U.S.).
- 16.4 percent of Kentuckians work a blue collar job (14th highest in the U.S.).
Disability Insurance is hard to get, and not guaranteed for life
Concerns that DI in Kentucky is being overused reflect a fundamental misunderstanding about the program. It is actually very difficult to be approved for DI — in Kentucky as well as nationally. People without a history of work certainly do not qualify, and the benefit ends either when beneficiaries are well enough to return to work or when they reach full retirement age. Here are some important facts to keep in mind:
- Fewer than one in four applicants for DI receive it after an initial request in Kentucky. Ultimately, after 2 rounds of appeals, a total of 28.3 percent of Kentucky applicants receive DI benefits, which is below the net approval rate nationally of 32.1 percent in 2015.
- These low rates of approval stem from very strict eligibility criteria. First of all, applicants must have a diagnosed medical impairment that keeps them from continuing the work they were doing. Applicants also cannot have skills that could make them employable in another industry where there are job openings anywhere else in the country. Then applicants must prove they have worked for more than a quarter of their adult life, and worked 5 of the past 10 years. Also, applicants must be U.S. citizens, so immigrants that have not been naturalized and worked in the U.S. for a substantial period of time cannot receive DI.
- Disabled workers who receive DI must regularly go through what is called a Continuing Disability Review (CDR) to ensure only individuals with disabling medical conditions receive benefits. CDRs are prioritized for individuals with medical conditions that are most likely to improve to ensure the individuals who most need DI assistance are where resources are primarily focused.
Disability Insurance provides modest yet critical support for Kentucky’s most vulnerable
DI benefits are modest – Benefits for the small portion of disabled Kentucky workers who are approved for DI are modest, which is another aspect of DI that is commonly misunderstood. The median monthly benefit for a DI recipient in Kentucky was $1,055 per month in 2016. When annualized, this median benefit was $12,660 – which is barely above the poverty line.
Kentuckians who apply for DI are among the most vulnerable – Medical conditions that qualify for DI include cancer, kidney failure, congestive heart failure, crippling injuries and severe mental disorders. These are massively disruptive to everyday life, let alone a career. In fact, before being approved for disability, the percent of applicants performing meaningful work activity declines for years and few disabled workers are able to go back to work whether or not they were approved for benefits.
DI helps people to live longer – One criticism recently leveled at DI is that DI beneficiaries are more likely to die than other people, suggesting that increased mortality risk was somehow because of DI. While it is true that DI beneficiaries are at a higher risk of mortality than the general population, that is in large part due to the fact that they have a severe medical condition. It is the disabling medical condition that drove people to seek help through DI that increases their risk of dying relative to everyone else, not the benefit. In fact, a study by researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Social Security Administration found that DI beneficiaries live longer than similar people who did not receive DI benefits. On average, they found that for every $1,000 in DI benefits, the risk of death among lower-income beneficiaries decreased 0.1-0.2 percentage points.
by Courtney Shaw