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Jim Waters: Facts don't mesh with more-money better-education myth

No matter how persistent those claiming Kentucky doesn’t adequately fund its public education may be, they can’t escape the reality offered by the cold, hard facts in study after study on school spending.

 

One of the latest is Reason Foundation’s brand new report showing that not only has public-education spending increased in the Bluegrass State, but it’s also risen more than in 35 other states, including six of the seven neighboring the commonwealth.

Our state’s per-pupil revenue of $12,844 in 2019 was 28% higher than 2002 – an upsurge more than 10% larger than the rise in spending during the same period in Tennessee, which had the next-highest increase among Kentucky’s border states.

Kentucky has actually increased its rate of spending in the 21st century more than even Massachusetts, which offers one of the nation’s best public educational experiences.

Meanwhile, the Bluegrass State’s 20th-century woes have continued into this new century, as evidenced by growing academic and graduation achievement gaps and by the failure of a third of its public education students to read adequately.

Proponents of spending even more tax dollars on the public education system hardly ever address the fact that our increasingly expensive public schools offer a mediocre or outright-defective experience for far too many students.

The education establishment’s predictable, reactive response always is, “if you would fund education adequately, we would do a better job of educating students.”

Rep. Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville, charged in an op-ed at the conclusion of this year’s legislative session that the state’s portion of per-pupil revenue has failed to keep pace with inflation since the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) in 1990 became the commonwealth’s policy governing its public schools.

“If the state had just kept up with inflation since then, the $4,000 we spend now annually on each student would be at $4,700,” she complains.

Her assertion is misleading and incomplete.

First, the state portion of funding is only one of several revenue streams flowing into public schools for each student.

A study released in December by University of Kentucky economist and Bluegrass Institute Scholar John Garen, Ph.D., clearly shows that when the total flow of all revenue streams – all local, state and federal funding – is considered, inflation-adjusted per-pupil funding rose by 80% between 1990 and 2019.

Second, Garen concludes that inflation-adjusted per-pupil funding “rose virtually every year over this time span except for the years following the Great Recession,” and that Kentucky’s public education spending in 2018 and 2019 was the highest in the commonwealth’s history.

Even Bojanowski admits – amid her bemoaning about the purported decline in funding – that Kentucky still spends 52 cents of every tax dollar on K-12 and higher education.

Yet she ignores the system’s weak performance, offering no acknowledgement of the painfully obvious: Kentucky taxpayers deserve better returns for the huge investments they’ve made and continue to make in public education.

What cannot be ignored is the fact that pension and health insurance benefits are driving much of the increase in education spending.

According to the Reason report, while there was modest growth in spending for salaries and support services, there was a “comparatively large spike in benefits of nearly 80%” nationwide between 2002 and 2019.

Kentucky’s increased education spending on benefits by more than 108% – we now spend more than $2,000 per pupil just on pensions and health care benefits – during that time was 10th-highest in the nation.

Ahead of the Bluegrass State were blue states like Hawaii, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

But change is in the wind.

By passing school choice and pension reform legislation this year, lawmakers show they’re more willing to follow the facts while breaking away from the myth that just more money will fix our education problems.

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

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