To start, I didn’t raise the possibility of Jefferson County Public School District (JCPS) being an outright failure, and I am reluctant to use such extreme labeling in any event.
However, in a recent editorial, Shea Van Hoy, editor-in-chief of Louisville Business First, wrote:
“Why would someone with no kids in the local public school system or no direct ties to JCPS vote to increase his taxes? The alternative of doing nothing is perpetuating failure.”
Aside from pushing a dubious tax increase at a time when COVID-19 is wreaking havoc with the economic survival of many families in Louisville, it’s clear that the author thinks no change from the existing school situation will perpetuate failure. That certainly indicates Van Hoy doesn’t think very highly of the current public school performance in his city.
Anyway, while poor performance isn’t necessarily synonymous with outright failure, some recent testing results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for JCPS surely doesn’t show progress.
This table, assembled with the NAEP Data Explorer, summarizes NAEP scores from 2015 and 2019 for white and black students in JCPS for Grade 4 and Grade 8 math and reading.
As you can see, scores for both races are lower for fourth grade testing in both subjects, though the drops for black students are notably higher in both subjects and actually are statistically significant even after allowing for statistical sampling errors present in all NAEP scores.
The eighth grade picture is more mixed. The small increases in scores between 2015 and 2019, shown in black type without an asterisk, are not statistically significant and can only be considered as ties, not real increases in performance.
However, for Grade 8 NAEP Reading for JCPS blacks, the drop is statistically significant and we can be reasonably certain a real performance drop is signaled by a score change this large.
By the way, forget the “Money Excuse.”
Just about anytime someone raises concerns about public education in Kentucky, the education status quo crowd starts yelling about money. So, I took a look at the total spending in JCPS in 2014-15 and 2018-19 according to annually released Revenue and Expenditures reports from the Kentucky Department of Education.
In 2014-15 JCPS spend a total of $14,510 per pupil and in 2018-19 the district spent $17,631 per pupil for a spending increase of $3,121.
But, what about inflation? I used the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator to change the 2014-15 figure into equivalent 2019 numbers. That worked out to an inflation-adjusted equivalent of $15,574 in June 2019 dollars. The actual 2018-19 figure is still more than $2,000 higher, so a real spending increase of over two thousand dollars occurred in the district between 2015 and 2019.
So, you can’t blame the JCPS’ NAEP performance on spending, at least not on overall spending.
Maybe the spending of those extra dollars was not well-managed.
Maybe a disproportionate amount went to schools with larger white populations. That would be interesting to look at, but the very limited school-level fiscal reporting currently available in Kentucky is highly problematic and might be highly misleading (more on the school level fiscal data issue is in the works – stay tuned).
Anyway, an outright overall shortage of dollars certainly didn’t occur at the district level between 2015 and 2019, so forget that excuse.
Also, based on the spending versus performance situation between 2015 and 2019 and the fact that such spending increased over $2,000 per pupil in that time indicates that just throwing more money at JCPS with yet another tax increase might not be the best plan, either. Let’s get solid financial data first so we can see how the district’s already impressive spending is actually being managed. It just might be that adequate funding is already present but it isn’t being used well.