another exercise in avoiding tax reform?

Richard Day: Funding, not the formula, is what's hurting education

April 7, 2014 

  • At issue: March 25 Herald-Leader article, "Panel to study formula for distribution of SEEK funding; goal is a report before 2015 session"

In a recent article, Senate Education Committee Chair Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, announced a study to analyze the SEEK funding formula, which the state currently uses to distribute money to its public school districts. House Education Chair Derrick Graham, D- Frankfort, will co-chair the committee's work.

The only problem with the study is that we already know the answer to the question it hopes to explore. And the answer is no. The SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) formula will not provide adequate school funds. Only the General Assembly can do that.

Like the Minimum Foundation Program which preceded SEEK, the formula will work — but only when adequately funded. Had the legislature fully funded the MFP in the 1980s, the landmark Rose case would never have occurred and the Kentucky schools would not have been ruled unconstitutional.

But following Rose, in 1990 the Kentucky Education Reform Act brought with it a large infusion of money. That support began to subside by 1999, and decreased further over the next decade and a half. The lack of adequate funding in recent years has increased inequities among Kentucky school districts and the Council for Better Education, successful plaintiffs in the Rose case, is once again rattling its sabers.

Since 2008 the Kentucky legislature has not kept its promise to Kentucky's schools and has chosen instead to hold tightly to an antiquated tax structure which starves the state's P-20 educational programs, breaks promises to state pensioners and falls well short of the support needed to provide the excellence state legislators are happy to insist upon, but not fund. We have heard big promises about all kids reaching proficiency by a certain date, but the legislature has too often failed to provide the support necessary to make it happen.

There are plenty of reasons for the state to study and address inadequate and inequitable school funding. In Young v Williams (2007), Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate chided the legislature for its failure to study these questions, given the legislature's constitutional duty to monitor the schools. Wingate suggested that the reason the legislature never studied the issue may be that "it is afraid of the results that study will produce."

It is Wingate's comment that has motivated the Council for Better Education, headed by Fayette County Superintendent Tom Shelton, to undertake an adequacy study of its own which is scheduled to be completed by June, just as Wilson's committee gets underway.

Wilson's committee seems to be an effort to demonstrate the legislature's concern for the schools. It has all of the benefits of appearing to address serious issues related to school funding while completely avoiding the much more difficult but crucial issue of tax reform.

Still, Gov. Steve Beshear and the legislature deserve credit for restoring P-12 education funding in the recently adopted state budget. Also deserving credit is the Kentucky Education Action Team, a coalition of state educational advocacy organizations that have joined forces to call attention to recent funding reductions in SEEK, preschool, Family Resource Centers, school safety, professional development and textbooks — and to press state legislators to restore P-12 funds to 2008 levels.

If the legislature is looking for tweaks to the SEEK formula that can be hailed as solutions to past problems, they will surely find them. I expect the committee to validate its work by blaming SEEK for various shortcomings. But of course, the problem does not lie with the formula itself. It almost never does. I defy the General Assembly to create a funding formula that will adequately support our public school students and teachers when it is not adequately funded.

Richard E. Day is associate professor of educational foundations at Eastern Kentucky University.

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