A new report by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy shows the funding disparity between Kentucky’s wealthiest and poorest school districts is getting closer to the level it was before a landmark Kentucky Supreme Court case led to comprehensive school funding reform in the early 1990s.
KCEP’s report, The Funding Gap Between Kentucky’s Poor and Wealthy School Districts Continues to Grow, builds on previous analysis by the legislature’s Office of Education Accountability. It shows that although funding disparities shrank after the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), the state has been losing ground for decades. KCEP finds that state and local per-pupil revenue in Kentucky’s wealthiest 20 percent of school districts was $1,399 more than in the poorest 20 percent of districts in 2016. That’s just $159 shy of the pre-KERA difference of $1,558 in 1990, and 2.4 times bigger than the gap in 1997 (all figures in 1990 dollars). As a share of total funding for the poorest schools, the gap fell from 58 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 1997, but was back up to 31 percent in 2016.
Lack of equitable funding led to the 1989 Rose decision, which held the state was failing in its constitutional duty to “provide for an efficient system of common schools” that gives equal educational opportunities to all Kentucky children. In response, the General Assembly passed KERA in 1990 and infused its “SEEK” funding formula with more than a billion dollars in new revenue in order to reduce disparities and improve educational outcomes.
“For years, our elected officials have sought to protect education funding from the consequences of Kentucky’s fiscal challenges. But by not adequately funding the SEEK guaranteed base, by cutting non-SEEK funding for several years and by leaving wealthy and poor school districts alike to make up the difference, we have put our school districts on an increasingly uneven playing field,” KCEP Senior Policy Analyst and author of the report, Anna Baumann, said.
In January, the General Assembly faces the most challenging two-year budget outlook in recent memory. Potentially large budget cuts are on the table, which could include cuts to SEEK that will further widen an already problematic gap.
“Another budget session with either flat funding or cuts to education will further limit our ability to fund education equitably,” said Baumann. “With KERA we cleaned up tax breaks and increased investment in education to close this gap. It’s time for us to talk about doing so again.”
In response to the report, the Kentucky School Boards Association called for adequate funding of the SEEK formula to take mounting pressure off local school boards.
“This report clearly demonstrates that the financial burden for providing Kentucky’s children with the educational opportunities they have a constitutional right to has been increasingly falling to local school boards, which really means it falls to the taxpayers of each local community,” Eric Kennedy, director of governmental relations for KSBA, said. “This has exacerbated resource gaps that are not fair to the students and families of our common school system, which is created to provide equal access to opportunity for each and every child. KSBA has long been concerned that over-reliance on local property taxes as the source of investment in the education of our children will lead to the inequities that plagued our classrooms prior to the creation of the SEEK allocation formula in 1990, and we are now experiencing that in districts from the eastern and western ends of our state.”
Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said it was time for Kentucky to once again make a commitment to education funding.
“Kentuckians have repeatedly set ambitious goals for student outcomes, but only once have we followed through with a commitment to adequate and equitable funding necessary to achieve those goals. Over time, the commitment has sadly eroded as this report shows. If we’re going to make the next giant leap from the middle of the national rankings to the top tier, we must make sure our schools and districts have the resources necessary to serve each and every student well.”
And Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, noted that when the SEEK formula isn’t adequately funded, the consequences are negative.
“The SEEK formula is meant to be adequately funded so that resources can be equitably distributed. When it is funded, it works. The lack of adequacy in funding has caused these equity issues to reappear as the formula works the same way in reverse (negatively) as it does positively when it is adequately funded,” Shelton said. “We must again as a state recognize that education is an investment, not a cost. Education is economic development. We are only hurting ourselves and our future when we underfund education.”