A persistent myth in Kentucky’s Capitol — one cherished by Republicans and Democrats, governors and lawmakers alike — is that basic funding for Kentucky’s public schools has been shielded from a decade of state budget cutting.
Gov. Matt Bevin is the latest to promulgate this comforting fiction. Rather than dive right into the math behind the myth, let’s first hear from Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who this week said the budget proposed by Bevin could break some school systems. “We have some districts that, frankly, could be insolvent, with some of these cuts. But they may be insolvent either way. Because we have some districts right now that are living paycheck to paycheck.”
Because of the coal industry’s near disappearance, some Eastern Kentucky districts have lost almost all of their local tax base. Poor to begin with, they can’t possibly tap local taxpayers to make up for the erosion in state support.
But even in Fayette County, where new construction and rising property values cushion schools from state cuts, the $17 million cost of Bevin’s budget would be felt in classrooms at a time when educators are the front line of protection for children at risk from adults’ opioid addiction.
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Bevin’s not to blame for Kentucky’s revenue crisis. It’s been building for years as the state’s tax code lagged changes in the economy and lawmakers handed out tax breaks that now exceed tax revenue.
But Bevin is the governor, and Kentucky’s children would be the winners if he followed through on his call for a modernized tax code and his vow to slay some sacred-cow tax exemptions. A public outcry has greeted the hard budget choices facing this legislature. Strong leadership would capitalize on that public outcry to build support for long overdue tax reform.
Among the cuts Bevin is recommending to balance revenue and spending is a 62 percent cut or $138 million in school transportation. The transportation money flows through the basic funding formula known as SEEK (Support Educational Excellence in Kentucky). Bevin’s proposal would accelerate a trend of shifting transportation costs onto local districts; it’s also a reduction in state SEEK funding, despite claims to the contrary.
State funding for SEEK has essentially been flat since 2008 (there were small increases in 2015 and 2016). Inflation, though modest, has eroded the value of that funding while enrollment has grown. When inflation and the increased number of students are taken into account, SEEK funding per student is now 15.8 percent lower than it was in 2008, according to an analysis by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
While Kentucky’s public schools educated more students in 2016 than in 2008, they did so with fewer teachers and staff.
The effects are being felt around the state, as a recent survey of school districts (representing 74 percent of students) makes clear. Among the findings, 54 percent of districts said they have cut the number of days that kids are in school. Art and music programs have taken hits in a third of the districts. Fourteen percent said they have reduced special education services for cost-related reasons.
The myth about school funding may comfort Kentucky politicians. But it’s ill serving Kentucky’s kids and future. Now would be a good time to deal with hard reality.