Education inequality worsening; Ky.'s future jeopardized without support for poor schools, kids

In a state where more than one in four children live in poverty, the education gaps between lower- and higher-income Kentuckians are widening.

If the injustice of that does not alarm you, consider the economics: Today's students will be the single biggest factor in Kentucky's ability to compete. We are failing them — and failing our future.

The funding gap between poor and richer public school districts is almost back to pre-KERA levels.

The state is spending $4 million less on preschool now than four years ago and is ending child-care subsidies to thousands of working-poor families.

More than 96,000 college students who qualified for need-based state financial aid didn't get it this year because the money had run out.

Five years of state funding cuts, plus the federal sequester cuts, have fallen hard on schools across the state, but are especially onerous in places where local tax increases can't begin to make up the difference.

In a poor place like Letcher County, as staff writer Linda Blackford reported last week, a 4 percent increase in the local property tax yields $57 per student, compared with $188 per student in Lexington. Poverty creates enough obstacles, especially for kids growing up in one of the many families ravaged by parental drug abuse. The last thing these kids need are deeply inferior schools.

Unequal funding was the injustice at the heart of the constitutional argument that produced the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 and a penny sales tax increase to fund it.

By the late 1990s, the gap in per-pupil state and local revenues between the wealthiest 20 percent of school districts and the poorest 20 percent had been whittled from $1,598 to $580.

But by 2010, the gap had ballooned to $1,206, even when adjusted for inflation, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, and has probably kept widening since then.

While Gov. Steve Beshear and lawmakers tried to spare basic school funding from the deep cuts that have been made to the rest of education and state government, basic state support for schools is $64 million less than it was in 2008-09, according to the Department of Education.

The cuts to every other part of education — from extended school services to teacher development and replacing ragged textbooks — have been even deeper.

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday is seeking an additional $336 million in the 2014-16 biennium just to get education funding back to where it was in 2008.

Meanwhile, Kentucky's colleges and universities produced more graduates than ever before in 2011-12. But the graduation rate for low-income students seeking bachelor's degrees fell — from 46.2 percent to 34.5 percent. The graduation rate for minorities also dropped, from 37 percent to 34 percent, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education reported last week.

Unless these inequities are remedied — and that will require money — Kentucky should prepare to resume its former place at the bottom of all education rankings.