Politics & Government

Kentucky school districts pay for study to push lawmakers to restore funding

Lexington Herald-Leader

Two decades ago, the Council for Better Education's efforts led to a landmark court decision to strengthen Kentucky schools and to a reform act from the General Assembly.

Now, the council — composed of nearly all school districts in Kentucky — is raising money for a study that could show lawmakers that school funding needs to be restored.

"We must have independent verification based on scientific measurement to verify what we already know. We are severely underfunded and must receive adequate funding to ensure all students become college- and career-ready," council president Tom Shelton said in a recent email to superintendents in the state.

The $130,000 study, which could begin Dec. 1, would design an equitable and adequate funding system to allow all students in Kentucky to become college- and career-ready, said Shelton, who is also superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools.

Getting more school funding is important because taxpayers are having to take on more of the burden of funding their school districts, he said. Several school districts have had to increase their tax rates "because the state's not stepped up and funded us" as the state Constitution requires, Shelton said.

Last month, Stu Silberman, head of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and former Fayette superintendent, and Ali Wright, a teacher from Lexington's Lafayette High School, told lawmakers on a budget subcommittee what the cuts meant for schools. The duo — attending on behalf of the Kentucky Education Action Team, a group of state education associations — told lawmakers that no money had been allotted for hardback or online textbooks since 2010. Wright said hardback books in one of her classes, used by students who have a shot at attending the nation's top colleges, are falling apart.

The SEEK program, the primary source of money for school districts, accounts for about $2.9 billion a year and is used for everything from classroom instruction to school bus maintenance. The amount of SEEK funds has remained flat, but schools have seen increases in the number of students and average daily attendance figures. That caused the amount of funding per student to slip from $3,866 in 2009 to $3,827 this year.

Flexible focus funds — which include textbooks, preschool, extended school services, safe schools and staff professional development — also need to be restored to 2008 levels, educators have said. The amount dropped from $154 million in 2008 to $93 million this year.

Kentucky has substantial numbers of students who are underperforming in comparison with their peers, Shelton said. They include special needs students, students of color, students living in poverty and students Shelton called "English-language learners."

"We have got to create a funding system that will provide for the resources for those students to overcome those equity issues," he said.

Woodford County Superintendent Scott Hawkins pointed to Education Week magazine's 2013 Quality Counts survey, which ranked Kentucky's education performance 10th in the nation but gave the state an "F" for the amount it spends per pupil.

"We are not being funded at an adequate level to continue the progress that we've made," Hawkins said.

The Council for Better Education is a nonprofit corporation whose members include 169 of Kentucky's 173 public school districts.

Since Shelton suggested the study in September, about 120 of the council's school district members — including Fayette and Woodford — have decided to help pay the cost, he said. Most district officials think restoring school funding to 2008 levels is so important that they are voluntarily paying 25 cents per student, using daily attendance aver ages to determine the amount. That's about $1,000 for a district with average daily attendance of 4,000 students.

Woodford County contributed $961, said Hawkins. In Fayette County, the amount was about $10,000, Shelton said.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday weighed in this week, saying he was "focused on working with the General Assembly to restore education funding to 2008 levels."

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said in a statement to the Herald-Leader that "if there is one vote that the people can count on to increase funding for public education, it is mine," Stumbo said he was House majority floor leader when the Kentucky Education Reform Act passed in 1990 and played a major role in shepherding that legislation, and the funding tied with it, through the General Assembly.

Jodi Whitaker, communications director for the state Senate Majority Caucus, did not make a commitment for votes but said, "We want education to be funded at a level that meets the needs of children and ensures them a quality education.

"As always, funding is a challenge. I'm sure it will be a topic of discussion during the upcoming legislative session."

Shelton said the study would look at data from student tests since Senate Bill 1 was passed in 2009. That legislation essentially said the new measurement for student achievement would be career and college readiness; it led to changes in the student testing structure.

He said the study would be conducted by consultants with Picus Odden & Associates, a California-based research firm.

Michael Goetz, senior associate of Picus Odden & Associates, said in an Oct. 15 memorandum to Shelton that the study wouldn't just be about resources, "but about how resources can be turned into effective instruction that boosts student learning."

In the past, the council has used measures other than a study to get a funding boost.

The Council for Better Education has been the plaintiff in two cases to strengthen Kentucky education, one of which led to the Kentucky Supreme Court's landmark 1989 ruling on Kentucky's constitutional commitment to elementary and secondary education, according to its website.

The General Assembly responded to the court decision by passing the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.

The council was not successful in a second lawsuit against the General Assembly that was filed about 10 years ago, but Shelton thinks it led to a school funding increase from the General Assembly at the time.

He said that the motive for the proposed study is not a lawsuit and that he had had no discussion with his group about filing a lawsuit against the General Assembly if funding is not restored or increased.

Although saying the study is not a precursor to a lawsuit, Shelton said it would be needed as evidence if litigation were approved by the council's membership.

After the 2014 General Assembly, Shelton said, he thinks the membership of the group would assess "our next steps" with lawmakers.

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