How much do taxpayers really spend on education in Kentucky?

And, how does Kentucky’s education spending rank against other states?

We hear it all the time. Kentucky’s educators frequently complain that they are not getting enough resources (think dollars) to do their job well. And, we’ve often heard that per pupil funding for education in Kentucky ranks low compared to what other states spend.

But now, a report from a very surprising source indicates our educators have not been giving us the correct picture. According to this source, not only does Kentucky’s education funding rank a whole lot higher than our educators have been telling us, but in 2015 the total taxpayer support for education in Kentucky actually ranked above the national average.

Based on this new ranking information, the Kentucky taxpayer now has cause to take issue with educators’ complaints because it looks like financial support for education in Kentucky – especially considering the state’s relatively low income levels – is actually rather remarkable.

By the way, if our educators want to complain about this surprising new information, they will have to take it to their own union. You see, the state funding rankings I refer to come from none other than the National Education Association. If that catches your attention, click the “Read more” link to learn still more.

It seems like educators in Kentucky constantly complain about funding. For example, the official press release about Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt’s January 2016 State of Kentucky Education report groans that the state’s per pupil expenditures are $1,279 less than the national average.

Kentuckians got treated to more bad news in an August 8, 2016 Kentucky Center for Economic Policy brief that claims “Kentucky’s spending per student is also below the national average even when regional cost differences are taken into account, according to Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts report.”

But, is this really true?

There is surprising information “out there” that says taxpayers actually do a lot better for our public schools than many educators in the state want to admit. And, the source of this “rest of the story” is also surprising. In fact, recent reports from the national office of our teachers’ own union, the National Education Association (NEA), paint a remarkably different picture about how Kentucky’s education funding stacks up against other states.

For example, the NEA’s “Rankings and Estimates, Ranking of the States 2016 and Estimates of School Statistics 2017” report shows in Table F-2 that in 2015 Kentucky’s total education revenue per pupil in average daily attendance actually was $585 per pupil HIGHER than the US average! That level of taxpayer support earned Kentucky an above the median rank of 22 among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia’s school systems.

When we talk about what are called “current expenses,” which leaves out things like purchasing school buildings that can temporarily shift financial rankings around a lot from year to year, Kentucky ranks even higher. The NEA’s report says in Table H-11 that Kentucky’s current expenditures for public K to 12 schools per student in average daily attendance ranked in 17th place in 2015. The difference between Kentucky’s per pupil current expenditures and the lower US average in that year was $766.

So, how does this match up to the state’s educational performance around 2015? The answer to that is really complex. A host of rankings from the 2015 time frame, some extremely dubious, shows the state’s relative rank ranging rather considerably. This variation is due in no small measure to problems with the quality of data these various rankings analyze.

In January 2016, for example, the Center for Business and Economic Research at UK published an Issue Brief titled “Kentucky’s Educational Performance & Points of Leverage,” which mostly examined data from 2014 and 2015.

This brief states:

“Based on 12 educational and attainment and achievement factors combined into a single index, Kentucky is statistically higher than 8 states, lower than 15 states, and not statistically different from 26 states.”

That placed Kentucky’s education system’s performance in a very large and vague middle to slightly below middle region among the states. If a more refined measurement were available, Kentucky might actually rank as low as 9th from the bottom or maybe as high as 16th from the top. That’s pretty vague.

Of course, as I have blogged before, there are many issues regarding accurately ranking the states using the data the Center for Business and Economic Research examined.

More recently, a report just out from WalletHub, which uses mostly 2015 and 2016 data, claims in an interactive graphic that the state’s educational performance ranked only in 27th place while our education spending ranked in 19th place. WalletHub’s graphic classifies Kentucky as having high spending but a weak education system.

However, many of the same concerns I have regarding the Center for Business and Economic Research ranking also pertain to the WalletHub study. In a number of cases, the data employed are biased in Kentucky’s favor due to failure to consider things like our very high white, English as a first language population.

For sure, it seems problematic to consider Kentucky’s true education performance ranks anywhere near the middle among the states when Kentucky’s latest performance for its dominant racial group on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Grade 8 Math assessment look this weak.

G8 Math Map for Whites 2015

By the way, if anyone is wondering if I just rashly jumped on an economic analysis by the teachers union, I’m not just jumping on this data. I took some time to compare some of the NEA’s numbers to data directly reported by the Kentucky Department of Education and even some figures from the US Census Bureau. I learned that the NEA’s numbers actually compare quite well with what the Kentucky Department of Education is reporting. Along the way I also learned that the Census leaves out some important parts of the overall education funding picture from their “total” amounts.

I discovered the Kentucky Department of Education, in a nice transparency improvement, now directly provides total revenue information online. For example, the state edition of the 2014-15 Kentucky School Report Card (Obtain from pull down links here) shows on the Finance_Revenues and Expenditures tab that total revenue for K to 12 education in Kentucky was a whopping $8,560,851,325 for that school year. This apparently includes every dollar taxpayers provide from local, state and federal tax sources, covering such things as capital expenditures for those very nice school buildings increasingly found around the state and funds that support the Kentucky Department of Education itself in addition to those tax dollars that get funneled down to the districts and schools.

Now, the US Census also has an annual report on education finances. Table 1 in the US Census Bureau’s Public Education Finances: 2015 report lists the total education revenue for all the states. For Kentucky, the amount listed is 7,547,768,000. This obviously creates a problem, of course, because Census says Kentucky collected over $1 billion less in education revenue than the state itself says it collected. And, the Census has to rely on state reporting for much of its analysis.

So, I contacted the Census Bureau and learned that the “total” amount they look at does not include some big ticket items like capital expenditures. Thus, the “total” isn’t really the “total” in the Census’ report.

That discrepancy bothers me. When we talk about the full impact on taxpayers, total should mean total. The omission also throws the Census’ state rankings for total revenue into question.

Fortunately, there is another source of education funding information that agrees much more closely with Kentucky’s reported overall spending numbers. As mentioned above, the NEA also does a massive report on education each year called “Rankings and Estimates.” The “Rankings and Estimates, Ranking of the States 2016 and Estimates of School Statistics 2017” has many tables of education finance data, and some tables include 2015 data, as well.

I don’t see a direct listing in the NEA’s document for the total amount of revenue for Kentucky in 2014-15. However, NEA’s Table F-2 shows “Public School Revenue Per Student in Average Daily Attendance ($)” and includes 2015 numbers. For Kentucky, the 2015 revenue per pupil in ADA is $13,872.

The NEA’s report has another table, Table B-3, which says Kentucky’s Average Daily Attendance figure for 2015 was 606,984 students.

Put the numbers from Tables F-2 and B-3 together and the NEA’s report implies that in 2015 Kentucky’s total revenue for education was a $8,420,082,048. That is a lot closer to the Kentucky Department of Education’s 2015 figure of $8,560,851,325 than the supposed total figure the Census says Kentucky collected for education.

So, right now it looks like the NEA is at least in the ball park with its school finance data for Kentucky.

And, this changes a whole lot of things!

Kentucky’s educators have been complaining that they are not getting the resources schools in other states receive and that explains why we still see disappointingly low performance for our students like our white students’ very low ranking on the 2015 NAEP Grade 8 Math Assessment I discussed above.

Now, it appears those educators might not be looking at the right stuff. It also indicates that WalletHub’s new report is at least pointing in the right direction when it says Kentucky has high education spending but a weak education system.

In other words, taxpayers might not be getting suitable bang for what turns out to be their more than average expenditure of bucks in the commonwealth.

This could open an interesting policy door for more discussion. It might be that dollars are not so short in Kentucky, but rather the ways they are being spent might be the problem. Perhaps spending this larger than many admit amount of money in a different way might work a lot better for everyone.