Thursday, November 22, 2007

A half adequate education in Kentucky?

The Prichard Committee recently released a report that looked at funding for education in Kentucky since 1990 and the impact of benefit expenses on the delivery of educational services to students. The study suggests that the rising insurance and benefit costs for school employees have eaten into that funding that might have otherwise gone for programs that directly impact children.

The report authored by Susan Weston and Steve Clements offers a review of major trends in state funding from the earliest implementation of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in fiscal year 1991 through the budget recently enacted for fiscal year 2008.

Susan Perkins Weston, an attorney, is the former executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Councils, now doing some consulting. Stephen Clements is the director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Educational Research and a faculty member of the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation.

Weston and Clements note the resurgence of public conversation surrounding the funding of Kentucky’s public schools in recent years; a conversation that had languished for the previous decade and a half.

They also point to the state’s fiscal and budget crises from 2002 to 2005 and its impact on school funding: Cuts to extended school services and textbooks while regional service centers and school rewards were axed.

In 2004, teacher protests forced a special legislative session to commit extra funding to health insurance for state and school district employees.

In 2006, after state revenues had recovered, the General Assembly increased school funding substantially, targeting teacher salaries and adding two days to the calendar.

Their analysis revealed:

  • Kentucky took a major step in state support for education efforts from 1990 to 1992.

  • Those efforts continued from 1992 to 1996, completing start-up investments and adding funds to ongoing initiatives with limited additional dollars.

  • New initiatives and an extra investment in technology were added from 1996 to 2000.

  • Funding took a step backward from 2000 to 2004, reflecting overall state fiscal difficulties.

  • An important recovery from 2004 to 2008 served mainly to keep up and catch up with growing costs for existing efforts.

  • In every period since 1992, inflation and faster-than-inflation growth in benefit costs consumed a major portion of the total increases.
The study focused mainly on state funding since state dollars cover the bulk of P-12 schooling costs and are directly controllable by Kentucky’s lawmakers.

Funding is not the only element needed to provide academic excellence for Kentucky’s children, but it is one essential component deserving of steady attention and wide participation. And it is especially important to know how much of Kentucky’s education-directed resources are being spent on programs to improve student achievement and how much are being consumed by such areas as rising health insurance and benefit costs.

In the end, expanded services need to reach the children who need them, if all are, indeed, going to achieve proficiency.

Weston and Clements chose the metaphor of a half-full glass (or was it half-empty?) to illustrate their view of Kentucky's school funding circumstance. I have tended to think of it as how much gas you have in the tank, because reaching any goal always depends on how far you want to go.

So what is an "adequate" education? Well...that depends, because it changes.

When Kentucky began its system of schools in 1837, a Kentuckian could be considered "educated" with a 4th grade skill set. The goal of the common school movement was free public grammar schools.

The industrial revolution needed more skilled workers, and by 1900, it became obvious that the new goal needed to be a high school education for Kentucky citizens. It took more funding to get there but with the new century came high schools in every county and a "nornal school" in every region. Americans were uncommonly proud of their schools; schools upon which a great democratic society was being built.

Kentucky is at a crossroads once again. The level of education among the workforce needs to be advanced if Kentucky is to continue to prosper. The global imperatives of the information age make the new basic level of education a college degree.

Anything less will be inadequate to keep pace with our competition.

Kentucky must travel the road that leads to more college graduates. But do we have the fuel to get us there?

At the p-12 level, we talk about this in terms of each and every child reaching "proficiency;" which opens the door to a college education for all.

Weston and Clements talk about adequacy this way:


Ultimately, the big question is: do Kentucky schools have the financial resources they need to deliver proficiency for all students?

Proficiency is the short definition of what an “efficient system of common schools,” as explicated by Rose v. Council for Better Education (the 1989 state Supreme Court decision that preceded KERA), should deliver.

Naturally, the question could be broken down into several parts: What efforts are needed to deliver proficiency? Are there special efforts needed for students with unusually intense learning challenges, including those with exceptional disabilities, those with grave poverty challenges and those with limited English?

What will it cost, on an ongoing basis, to deliver that mix of services?

What transitional costs are required to get there, such as added professional development, added or reconfigured facilities, and other help to retool in preparation for using use new approaches? Are the most appropriate mechanisms in place for ensuring that schools and districts make decisions that will most effectively lead to proficiency?

Is that revenue, in fact, being provided?

The Rose Opinion reads, "The system of common schools must be adequately funded to achieve its goals. The system of common schools must be substantially uniform throughout the state. Each child, every child, in this Commonwealth must be provided with an equal opportunity to have an adequate education."

"Proficiency" is indeed a short definition for an efficient system. Among the essential, and minimal, characteristics of an "efficient" system of common schools Chief Justice Robert Stephens included,
1. The establishment, maintenance and funding of common schools in Kentucky is the sole responsibility of the General Assembly.
2. Common schools shall be free to all.
3. Common schools shall be available to all Kentucky children.
4. Common schools shall be substantially uniform throughout the state.
5. Common schools shall provide equal educational opportunities to all Kentucky children, regardless of place of residence or economic circumstances.
6. Common schools shall be monitored by the General Assembly to assure that they are operated with no waste, no duplication, no mismanagement, and with no political influence.
7. The premise for the existence of common schools is that all children in Kentucky have a constitutional right to an adequate education.
8. The General Assembly shall provide funding which is sufficient to provide each child in Kentucky an adequate education.
9. An adequate education is one which has as its goal the development of the seven [enumerated] capacities...

SOUREC: Rose v. Council for Better Education, 790 S. W. 2d 186.

Several 2003 studies found that Kentucky’s 2002 education funding was falling short of needed levels, and a lawsuit brought by the Council for Better Education used those findings and data on student achievement progress to seek new legislative action. In 2007, the Franklin Circuit Court ruled that student progress was rapid enough to preclude a court ruling for more funding— but added that a suit might be proper if progress slowed down.

I find this analysis somewhat incomplete, particularly as regards the separation of powers argument. Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate said it was not the court's role to dictate to the legislature a specific method for determining whether the schools are being adequately funded. In the Rose case, lead attorney Bert Combs carefully avoided seeking a specific remedy for fear the whole case might fall - as it did in Wingate's court. Instead, Combs sought only a declaratory judgment that left solutions to the legislature.

The CBE leadership chose not to appeal the decision. Whether in or out of court, the
debate on funding sufficient to support adequate education is sure to continue into the future.

Whatever the next steps in the academic debate, adequacy is also an issue for Kentucky’s citizens. However complex it may be to work out what our children need and however strenuous it may be to fund those needs, it is our shared duty to seek understanding and to work together to provide the learning that is right and good for the next generation.

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