Greater transparency and accountability may have exposed padded student counts
Kentucky Department of Education briefers unsuccessfully tried to tap dance today around a firestorm that has blown up over the next school year’s funding for preschools. Their two-step involved one of the most confusing presentations I have ever heard in a state legislative meeting (for an example of that confusion, read this article, which tries to explain what is going on).
The dance routine failed to mollify legislators, who are hot about this situation for several reasons.
The preschool funding issue blew up several weeks ago when the Kentucky Department of Education notified each school system about how much money would be provided for each district’s preschool program next year. About half the districts in the state found out they would see less money, triggering incorrect charges against the legislature, including the untrue allegation that lawmakers had cut preschool funding.
In fact, state preschool funding has not been cut. What actually happened is that a very complex and deficient formula for distributing the funding – one that some legislators charge violates state law – was the root cause of the problem.
Coupled with this deficient formula, which was developed many years ago by the department of education – not the legislature – was something else; for the first time this year the department got much more accurate reports on the real number of learning disabled and disadvantaged preschool students in each district. Those more accurate numbers, often lower than figures reported in previous years, resulted in the funding changes.
This revelation led some legislators to rather directly suggest that in prior years (when the counts of special preschool students were harder to audit), some districts may have ‘padded the enrollment books’ to get more money.
Pressed today by legislators, state educators admitted the funding formula in question has actually been in place for several decades. Local school districts should not have been surprised by the resulting calculations. The only thing new was the requirement to report student counts accurately, something that should have created no problems for districts that had been doing an honest job in the past.
Another issue added still more to educator-legislator tension. That was an e-mail that got sent out from the department of education in response to complaints from at least one school district. That e-mail blamed the Kentucky Senate for the funding declines because the Senate didn’t pass House Bill 329.
Obviously miffed legislators shot holes in that e-mail today. Some pointed out that department of education never indicated that HB 329 was critical. Others said the bill would not have taken effect in time to fix the coming school term funding in any event. It was also carefully pointed out that the bill only addressed learning disabled student funding and said nothing about funding for preschool for disadvantaged students.
In the end, legislators demanded to know that the correct message had been sent out to the school districts, and the department of education personnel said that had occurred.
Aside from the fact that the department needs to be careful about taking incorrectly aimed pot shots at legislators, there is another message here.
Increased transparency and accountability for our school system is badly needed. In this case, what looks like possible prior padding of special students head counts to improperly get more money may be coming to a close now that a more powerful and auditable student tracking program is in place. It’s about time.