School boards should keep poking legislature to restore education funding

November 19, 2013 

Rep. Jim DeCesare's nose is out of joint because school boards across the state are reminding the legislature that it has failed in its constitutional duty to provide Kentuckians with equal access to an adequate education.

At last count, 86 school boards — beginning with Rowan County in September — have enacted resolutions calling on the General Assembly to restore school funding that has eroded dramatically during the past five years.

The Bowling Green Daily News reports that DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, warned a gathering of school superintendents that if they want more money for schools they shouldn't "poke the bear," evoking the image of a grumpy despot more than a representative democracy.

DeCesare also said he felt as if he had been "thrown under the bus" by the school boards' criticism.

Sadly, it's Kentucky's young people — and future — that are being thrown under the bus by DeCesare and his tax-phobic colleagues.

Kentuckians should keep "poking" the legislature until it wakes up in the 21st century and overhauls an outdated tax system that is inadequate to meet Kentucky's needs.

Even from lawmakers who say they support more funding for schools, all we get is hand-wringing and whines that "we don't have any money."

Many school boards are showing the gumption the legislature lacks by raising property taxes. Unlike lawmakers, these elected officials are fulfilling their public trust.

The problem is, the more dependent schools become on local property taxes, the wider the funding gap grows between poor districts and those where the property tax base is richer. The same property tax rate yields wildly different results depending on whether or not a county has large commercial developments and high-priced residential real estate.

This inequality was at the heart of the 1989 Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed the constitutional duty of the legislature to provide an equal education across the state. The accident of birthplace, the court said, should not consign a child to an inferior education or reduced chances in life.

The ruling ushered in the Kentucky Education Reform Act and a penny increase in the state sales tax, which together greatly narrowed the gap in funding.

In recent years, however, the gap has increased, as state funding has been stagnant while the number of children in Kentucky schools grows. Since 2008, basic per-student state funding has declined from $3,866 to $3,827.

State funding outside the basic formula — for textbooks, preschool, extended school services, safety and staff professional development — has dropped from $154 million to $93 million since 2008.

And the legislature has never put money behind the new standards and accountability system it mandated in 2009.

Lawmakers should not delude themselves into thinking a recovering economy will bail them out. The revenue picture won't change substantially as long as the tax code is at odds with a 21st-century economy. Consider: State revenue grew 14 percent during the 1960s but just 2 percent during the first decade of this century. Without tax reform, the state will be looking at $1 billion in cuts by 2020.

Thanks to the school boards that are standing up for education and Kentucky's future. All Kentuckians should keep poking the legislature until it does its duty.

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