Save our seed corn

Robert F. Sexton, Executive Director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Submitted photo June 1, 2010.
Robert F. Sexton, Executive Director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Submitted photo June 1, 2010.

By Robert F. Sexton

The recently enacted state budget is another step backward for Kentucky kids. And it comes at a particularly bad time — just when the state is poised to move student achievement to the next level and help lead the nation on the most important education reforms in a generation.

Former Gov. Bert T. Combs used to say we were "eating our seed corn" when we failed to invest wisely and adequately in our children's education. Understanding the impact of such self-defeating behavior spurred Kentucky's groundbreaking reforms of 1990. Anyone who has been paying attention since then knows Kentucky has greatly raised its sights for — and the performance of — our public schools.

Our ranking on key indicators of progress has moved from the cellar (43rd in 1992) to closer to the middle (32nd in 2009), according to an index compiled by the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center. More specifically, Kentucky students scored above the national average in science, reading and fourth-grade math on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Kentucky legislation enacted in 2009 requiring new, tougher academic standards positioned Kentucky to be the first state to commit to common standards developed by a consortium of 48 states.

This summer, Kentucky educators are working to move those higher standards into classroom use, and new statewide tests will be administered in 2012 to reflect the changes in what our students are expected to know and be able to do.

In short, we're setting higher expectations and giving educators more to do, but our schools have fewer resources to work with. This repeats a legislative pattern we've seen for about the last 10 years, so these are cuts on top of cuts. But the latest losses are among the worst. Compared with 2009, the 2012 budget cuts are:

■ $21 million in textbook funding

■ $3 million in preschool funding

■ $3 million in youth services/family resource funding

■ $2 million in technology funding

■ $600,000 in funds for after-school tutoring

■ $5 million in highly skilled educator funding

■ Nearly $2 million in funding for teacher professional development (on top of cuts amounting to almost $12 million between 2008 and 2009)

Two of these cuts deserve special mention.

First, the cuts in professional development come at the very moment we are asking teachers to master new standards and develop more effective ways to teach them in the classroom. We say, "Learn more, do more," but we then strip away most of the funding to help teachers do that.

Second, the 2012 budget will eliminate all funding for highly skilled educators — people of great talent and expertise who help turn around the weakest schools. Education Commissioner Terry Holliday had hoped to use these funds to deploy people to help build local capacity to ensure classroom success with the new standards. Instead, the new budget includes bad cuts to the funding we need to implement some very good reforms.

As direct funding to help kids learn is cut, one big thing is still growing — health insurance costs. These show up in the direct cost of employee health insurance, the health-driven share of current retirement premiums, and the state's continuing obligation to pay back the retirement system for the legislature's past borrowing.

From 2009 to 2012, those benefit costs will increase by $138 million. Meanwhile everything else the state spends on P-12 education goes down by $107 million. Indeed, the unsustainable growth in health insurance costs could be the worst revenue problem we have.

It's stunning to see what has happened over the past 20 years. When adjusted for inflation, money spent on health insurance and retirement has increased by $620 million since 1992. All other P-12 expenditures have increased by $22 million. So spiraling health insurance and retirement took 97 percent of all new, inflation-adjusted education dollars. Everything else available to improve Kentucky schools increased 3 percent.

It is extremely important to understand that the cost increases didn't mean improved or expanded coverage. Nowhere near it. The same, or less, coverage just costs more and more.

We've seen numbers like this for many years, but this 20-year version is the worst yet.

It shows that we've hit the wall. Increased school revenue, if and when the recession ends, won't help much unless we reverse this 97-to-3 imbalance. There's no more blood to squeeze out of this turnip.

Kentucky's governor and legislators must do two things if we are to stop eating our seed corn.

They must reform our antiquated tax system so state education revenue can keep up with economic growth. And they must get control of spiraling health insurance costs while ensuring that teachers and other public employees receive fair and sustainable benefits. None of this will be easy. Effective solutions will require new thinking and some pain; political willpower is at a low point.

And Kentucky is not alone; Time magazine's recent cover story, "Bankrupt states," is a chilling picture of what could lie ahead without bold leadership.

But there was one strong sign of progress in the 2010 regular legislative session as active and retired teachers worked with legislators to develop a long-term sustainable method for funding insurance for retired teachers. Thanks to the Kentucky Education Association, the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System and the Kentucky Retired Teachers Association, among others, for this important first step.

We need more thinking — and action — like this to meet our obligations to Kentucky's school children and to the future of our commonwealth.