BARBOURVILLE — Public schools in this Appalachian town pocked with shuttered factories and vacant storefronts got an average of $8,362 to spend on each student's education in 2013, the least they had gotten in five years.
Several hours away, at the public K-8 school in the wealthy Jefferson County suburb of Anchorage, revenue rose slightly to $19,927 per student, more than twice as much as Barbourville's.
Everything looks better in Anchorage: teachers' salaries and experience levels, class sizes, textbooks, computer access, test scores and the future in general. After eighth grade, Anchorage students can go to a number of fine private academies. Or, if their parents desire, they can bypass Louisville's sometimes troubled urban classrooms for public high school in affluent Oldham County, 10 miles down the road.
"The model we have here is really working," said Anchorage school superintendent Kelley Ransdell.
In Barbourville, the locals are proud of their independent "city school," as they call it, a small campus enrolling about 700 mostly poor children from preschool to 12th grade. But they don't fool themselves about where it ranks.
There's no money for pay raises and little for arts programs unless parents raise it themselves. There are a handful of desktop computers, outdated in the iPad era. There's no state aid for textbooks, so the books on hand are few, old and worn. When new books became essential last year to teach modern "division math" at the elementary school, officials lifted $19,276 from the building repair fund.
And the buildings need repair: Unable to afford an expansion of the tiny cafeteria, the district staggers lunchtime throughout the day, sending in the youngest kids at 10:30 a.m. and the oldest at 1 p.m. Everyone has 20 minutes to be served, eat and get out.
"Morale at the school is low," said Anne Pederson, who is the mother of three Barbourville students and treasurer for the district's parent-teacher organization. "We have some great teachers, but it's been very, very difficult for us to try and keep up. The kids notice."
Among the problems facing Kentucky lawmakers in the 2014 General Assembly starting Tuesday is a growing inequality between public schools — like those in Anchorage and Barbourville — that is not supposed to exist.
Six years of state budget cuts have hobbled districts that depend heavily on outside assistance.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear promises to restore as much money as he can when he proposes the next two-year state budget this month, even if it means further cuts to other parts of state government. On Friday, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, floated the idea of asking voters to approve a 1-cent increase in the state sales tax to generate about $500 million a year for an Educational Excellence Trust Fund.
However, not all lawmakers share this concern about unequal school funding. Senate President Robert Stivers, whose district includes Barbourville, said he believes the town has "an appropriate and adequately performing school."
"I have heard no complaints in my time about the academic careers or studies at Barbourville Independent," said Stivers, R-Manchester, "You want to do everything you can do for restoring funding. But again, just because you throw money at it doesn't mean that it's going to be successful."
Schools fall behind
The 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act required the state to equalize funding between poor school districts, which cannot raise enough money from meager local tax bases, and districts like Anchorage and Lexington that are blessed with high incomes and home values. Under KERA, the state was supposed to pour money into the half-empty budgets of poor districts until they rose to a level that was more or less even with everyone else.
"You want a child in any middle school math class to have access to the same learning resources that are available to every other child in every other class in the state, whether they're in Barbourville or in Anchorage," said Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association.
For a while, KERA almost succeeded in this goal. The Kentucky Department of Education redistributed billions of dollars to poor districts. This never closed the funding gap — a child always was luckier to be born in a rich community — but during the early 2000s, the gap narrowed, according to state budget data. By 2004, per-pupil revenue in Barbourville stood as high as 62 percent of Anchorage's.
Then came the economic recession of 2008, followed by rounds of state budget cuts. Kentucky froze its $2.9 billion-a-year SEEK program, the state's primary funding source for schools. That was tantamount to a reduction as enrollment and costs such as fuel and health insurance kept rising. The state axed most everything else, including its assistance for textbook purchases, teacher training and technology upgrades.
Inflicting more pain, Congress is cutting federal education spending. Last year's initial round of "sequestration" under the American Taxpayer Relief Act eliminated tens of millions of dollars meant for Kentucky schools, often the poorest, such as an estimated $11.2 million in Title 1 grants meant to strengthen schools with "high-poverty populations" — schools like Barbourville's.
Anchorage hardly qualifies for much state or federal aid, so it barely felt the cuts. Anchorage's median home value is $630,000; most adult residents are well-paid professionals; and it taxes itself aggressively to pay for its school. Teacher pay raises have continued, as have textbook purchases. Students and teachers interact in class through laptop computers. And those classes are among the smallest in the state, which is a terrific boon, school officials say.
"If you have 30 to 35 kids in the room, doing any kind of hands-on activity can be difficult. But if you have 20 kids in the room, then it's obviously easier," said Ransdell, the Anchorage school superintendent.
By contrast, Kentucky's poor school districts fell behind again, laying off staff and closing programs.
In 2012, the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability was warning lawmakers: "While the magnitude of the equity gap varies depending on the method used, all methods consistently show that the equity gap ... has been widening in recent years."
The next year, in terms of per-pupil revenue, Barbourville schools got just 42 percent of the money enjoyed by Anchorage and 67 percent of the statewide average of $11,058.
In Barbourville, nearly one in three people are poor, many drawing public assistance. Their modest homes are worth less than one-fifth of what Anchorage's grand suburban manses fetch. So the school district relies on state and federal aid for most of its income. Local revenue can't begin to replace that aid as it disappears because there simply isn't a lot to tax in Barbourville.
"We've got a small private college here that doesn't pay any tax to us, we've got several churches in town that don't pay any tax to us, and then we've lost a couple of plants that were good employers. There's not much of an economy left," said Shirley "Buck" Treadway, who has been chairman of the Barbourville Independent Board of Education since the 1960s.
'Level of callousness'
To restore school funding to pre-recession levels, the Kentucky Department of Education will lobby lawmakers for an additional $336 million in the two-year state budget. Nearly half — $150 million — is needed just to return SEEK funding on a per-student basis to where it was five years ago, education officials say.
But other groups are submitting their own pent-up financial demands, from public universities to the state employee and teacher pension systems, and the next budget is not expected to be much larger than the current one. Since many lawmakers say they're uninterested in raising new revenue from taxes, there's likely to be much disappointment.
"The entire funding request for schools will not be met this year. Our job as legislators will be to decide what we can do," said Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, chairwoman of the House budget subcommittee for K-12 education.
Stivers, the Senate president, disputed that the schools need all of the money they're requesting.
"I don't know if finances necessarily equate to success in the classroom. I think it goes to the dedication of the teachers and the performance they put forth," Stivers said.
Some education advocates say the General Assembly is shrugging off a generation of poor, mostly rural schoolchildren.
"There's an unprecedented level of callousness right now in how people fare," said Jason Bailey, who studies public spending as director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy in Berea.
"We wrote in our state constitution at the very beginning that we would have a system of 'common schools.' And I think all of us believe our children should have equal opportunities regardless of where they may happen to live," Bailey said.
Forced to act
The legislature didn't pass KERA, which involved a tax increase for greater school spending, until it was forced to by a 1989 Kentucky Supreme Court ruling. An advocacy group, the Council for Better Education, sued the legislature, arguing that it had failed in its constitutional mandate to "provide an efficient system of common schools throughout the state."
The court agreed.
"It is crystal clear that the General Assembly has fallen short of its duty," Chief Justice Robert Stephens wrote for the court's majority.
"There is great disparity in the poor and the more affluent school districts ..." Stephens wrote. "Can anyone seriously argue that these disparities do not affect the basic educational opportunities of those children in the poorer districts? To ask that question is to answer it. The quality of education in the poorer local school districts is substantially less."
The Council for Better Education is asking questions again. The council — composed of nearly every school district in Kentucky — announced last fall that it's preparing a study of school funding in hopes of designing an equitable and adequate system that allows students to be college- and career-ready.
"We must have independent verification based on scientific measurement to verify what we already know. We are severely underfunded," said Fayette County school superintendent Tom Shelton, president of the council, in an email last fall to his fellow superintendents.
'We could do more'
On a recent morning, Barbourville school superintendent Larry Warren walked the halls and stuck his head into classrooms. Considering the challenges, the staff manages remarkably well, Warren said. Most children sat attentively at their desks as teachers explained the day's lessons.
Poverty, joblessness and drug addiction in surrounding Knox County have destroyed many families, making it hard to reach kids, Warren said. Yet the loss of outside funds means "we've had to cut way back" on services such as after-school tutoring for at-risk students, he said.
"Up to 50 percent of our students live in households where they may be raised by a grandparent or an uncle or aunt or some other adult relative," he said. "There's no stability. It can be different people who are responsible for checking their homework on any given night. It's not like they all have their own bedrooms with a desk and chair and a dedicated place to study."
Pederson, the Barbourville PTO treasurer, observed: "It's always the same dozen or so parents who get involved in our school events. The same faces. It's hard because we're a poor community. A lot of parents work two or more jobs just to make ends meet. Or in other cases, quite frankly, we've got serious problems with drugs going on, so you just don't ever see some of them."
By comparison, the thriving, close-knit Anchorage neighborhood bolsters its school with outside fundraising and volunteer labor, said Ransdell, the superintendent.
"Our parents all know each other, they all know the teachers, and they come to the school with an attitude of 'What can we do to help?'" Ransdell said. "The number of hours that our parents volunteer in the schools each year is tremendous. One hundred percent of the parents here have been to parent-teacher conferences, which isn't true of every school."
The stark differences between the school districts show up on standardized test scores that are supposed to identify how well students are learning.
On the 2011 Kentucky Core Contents tests, Barbourville elementary and middle school students fell below statewide averages for reading, math and science while Anchorage students came in far higher than average. The Kentucky Department of Education classifies Anchorage as a "Distinguished" district, scoring in the top 1 percentile for accountability standards. Barbourville is a "Needs Improvement" district, scoring in the bottom half for the state.
When Barbourville graduates go on to college, they typically stay in Eastern Kentucky, either at a community college or a public or private four-year school, such as tiny Union College just a few blocks away, according to the Kentucky Center for Education and Workforce Statistics.
Many find themselves unprepared for higher education. Of the seniors from Barbourville's Class of 2010 who went to public colleges, 41 percent finished their freshman year with less than a 2.0 grade point average, suggesting serious difficulty with their studies, compared to 34 percent for the statewide average.
Barbourville parents say they're impressed that so many local students make it to college at all.
"We're proud of our students," Pederson said. "With what we have, I think they excel. But obviously if we had a little more, we could do more for them."
Barbourville by the numbers
3,165: 2010 population
33: percent of adults who did not graduate from high school
18: percent of adults who have at least a four-year college degree
$37,857: median family income
$115,900: median home value
$8,362: per-pupil public school revenue in 2013
$47,387: average teacher salary in 2011
82: percent of public school revenue that comes from state and federal funds
Anchorage by the numbers
2,348: 2010 population
1: percent of adults who did not graduate from high school
74: percent of adults who have at least a four-year college degree
$166,154: median family income
$630,000: median home value
$19,927: per-pupil public school revenue in 2013
$60,739: average teacher salary in 2011
16: percent of public school revenue that comes from state and federal funds