Despite inadequate state funding for education, Kentucky’s school districts are figuring out how to open their doors to students this school year. In order to balance increasingly tight budgets, will they schedule fewer instructional days? Increase class sizes? Eliminate courses, programs and student supports?
In 2017 we surveyed school districts and learned that, as a result of state budget cuts over the last decade, many have reduced course offerings, school-based services, the number of staff and instructional days, for example, and they have resorted to pushing more costs onto parents through fees. This form of school funding disadvantages poorer communities, as does the fact that districts also respond to state funding cuts by raising local taxes. The same rate increase raises more revenue in wealthy districts with large tax bases than in poorer communities.
Research shows adequate school funding makes a big difference in student success in school and beyond, and can help address achievement gaps between wealthy and poorer students and communities. Attracting the best teachers, keeping class sizes small, and ensuring teachers have the classroom time they need to instruct are just a few commonsense examples of the advantages of adequate funding.
Unfortunately, the new state budget passed in 2018 only weakens districts’ ability to improve or even maintain current standards. Our core classroom funding formula, SEEK, was not meaningfully increased; once inflation is accounted for, SEEK funding per student has been cut a cumulative 14 percent since 2008. A component of SEEK, school transportation, will be funded in 2019 at about just 60 percent of what is statutorily required and local school districts will have to come up with the rest.
SEEK isn’t the only education funding stream that has been cut repeatedly. The new budget zeros out funding for two basics of classroom learning, instructional materials/textbooks and teacher professional development. Without up-to-date materials that reflect our best content knowledge and pedagogical practices, students will be left behind. Likewise, professional development helps equip teachers with innovative teaching methods and provides opportunities to network and share ideas. After-school programs, a critical support for students that helps close achievement gaps, were cut by 6.25 percent in 2019 for a cumulative, inflation-adjusted cut of 39 percent since 2008. And Family Resource and Youth Services Centers (FRYSCs) have been cut by a cumulative 16 percent.
Preschool hasn’t been spared the chopping block, either: Already-inadequate state funding was cut by 6.25 percent in 2019. The state does not fund preschool transportation, and only provides funding for half-day preschool, which research shows is less effective than full-day preschool at promoting academic success. Last year, just 40 percent of Kentucky school districts had full-day preschool.
When districts can’t fully make up for state budget cuts, essential components of education are sacrificed. The other side of the coin is that, through districts’ increased funding efforts, education funding overall has shifted to a greater reliance on local sources. As a result, the gap between what we invest in poor and wealthy districts has grown. In fact, Kentucky is continuing to creep towards levels of inequity we haven’t seen since before the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA). An equal education for every child across the commonwealth was one of the central mandates of the Rose Decision in 1989, the court case that led to KERA.
In the long run, if we want to provide a high-quality education to all Kentucky students — address achievement gaps and set our kids and the commonwealth’s economy, up for a bright future — we need adequate state funding for education.
This column ran in the State Journal on August 15, 2018.