• 54°

Knowns and unknowns of education spending

By JIM WATERS

Guest columnist

Promises to “properly fund education” remain political staples on campaign trails.

My pro-bono advice for office seekers wanting to distinguish themselves from campaign-by-rote competitors who limit their education-policy message to “more money” would be to ask the following question rarely seen in those glossy, environmentally-challenged campaign mailers that cost tons but offer little substance: What’s happening with Kentucky’s current education dollars?

A 90-page audit resulting in interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis’ recommendation that the state assume management of Jefferson County Public Schools chastises JCPS for — wait for it — not borrowing or taxing enough.

Hardworking taxpayers cannot fathom how $1.6 billion extracted from them and transferred to JCPS’ coffers isn’t enough to pay the help, fund buses, maintain facilities and provide an adequate education for a single school year in a Kentucky school district.

Apparently, that $1.6 billion and the $15,000 designated for each student also isn’t enough to keep JCPS teachers from digging into their own pockets to provide students in their classrooms with needed supplies and even textbooks.

The logical and obvious — but too-often unasked — question: Where’s the money going?

The only right answers: We don’t know, and we don’t know enough — both of which represent colossal obstacles toward determining whether or not dollars are used effectively or thrown away through inefficiency.

Shouldn’t more be known about how current education dollars are spent before soaking taxpayers again?

However, consternation isn’t limited to what we don’t know about education spending.

Like one wag quipped about the Bible: “It’s the things I do understand that trouble me most.”

It’s known, for example, that it took the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) nearly an entire school year following completion of the 2016-17 academic calendar to get the previous year’s per-pupil spending entered into the Kentucky School Report Card database.

We promise speedy trials to criminal defendants in complex legal cases yet can’t get accurate information about education spending and results released in a timely manner so Kentucky parents and taxpayers can assess what bang they’re getting for their education bucks.

Would it be unreasonable to expect KDE’s large bureaucracy to spend the nine months of a school year gathering, auditing and making per-pupil spending figures available at the end of that academic calendar rather than forcing the entire commonwealth to wait another entire school year to get the work done?

Recent developments also raise questions regarding why some schools seemingly receive a much smaller portion of the dollars flowing into district coffers.  

According to the Kentucky School Report Cards and KDE’s Revenue and Expenditure Report, the Dawson Springs Independent School District received revenues during the 2016-17 school year adding up to more than $11,000 per student while less than $5,000 of that amount seems to have actually reached the district’s schools for each of their students.

KDE officials started looking into the matter after being alerted in recent days of this apparent $6,000 per-student disparity by Bluegrass Institute staff education analyst Richard Innes.

“Either the reporting is messed up or a lot of money is getting withheld by the district,” Innes said.

There are other knowns but unknowns regarding funding disparities, such as why there’s a gap of more than $15,000 in per-pupil revenue between Dawson Springs and Louisville’s Alex R. Kennedy elementary schools.

Why is per-pupil funding more than $20,000 at the Kennedy school while less than $5,000 makes its way to Dawson Springs Elementary School for each of its youngsters, despite the fact that both schools having similar rates of poor and learning-disabled students?

Yeah, I know — state funding for schools is complicated.

Still, it’s the things I do understand that trouble me most.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.