As National School Choice Week begins, it is important to note that Kentucky has about the least school choice of any state in the union. At last count 43 states reportedly have charter school bills on their books, and a number of states now also have private school funding options such as voucher programs where students can use their state education dollars in another school, either public or private, and tuition tax credit programs where business and industry and other donors can get tax credits for making donations to private, non-profit scholarship awarding organizations that help low income students enjoy school choices normally only available to the rich.
This, of course, brings up the subject of money. We are currently hearing a huge amount of complaints from our traditional public school folks in Kentucky that they need still more money. However, the facts are that the state is probably not able to provide much more money under any condition. Among many other fiscal realities, the war on coal and other actions from Washington have adversely impacted Kentucky’s economy and tax base.
There is also something else. The facts are that since the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 came along, public education funding in Kentucky has risen rather remarkably, as the table below shows.
For example, the first column of spending data, “Total Revenue in Uncorrected Dollars,” shows that between 1989-90 and 2014-15, the total amount of revenue received by Kentucky’s school districts from all sources – local, state and federal – rose by over $6 billion. Even if we correct that for inflation, which I do for you in the second column of data titled “Total Revenue in Constant 1990 Dollars,” we learn that in 2014-15 total education revenue in Kentucky’s public school system was 222 percent of what it was in the year KERA came along. That’s a lot more real tax dollars getting spent.
I also looked at the spending on a per pupil basis, finding pretty similar results.
Any way we slice this, Kentucky is spending a whole lot more on public education today. That leads to several questions:
• Is it likely Kentucky’s tax base can support much more of a burden? Could a large increase in taxes force still more companies to leave our state, which the Toyota North American Headquarters is doing right now?
• Given that Kentucky more than doubled real education spending in the past quarter of a century, does it seem like educational performance has doubled?
• Given the fact that only around one in three Kentucky eighth grade public school students tested proficient or more on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, does it seem like Kentucky could ever afford the kinds of spending increases that seem necessary to get much more improvement from our traditional public school system to help the other two out of three students in our public schools?
• Given all of the evidence, does it seem like time to do something else to boost our state’s education level, like offering parents more options when the traditional, one-size-must-fit-all public school system isn’t working for their child?