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Published in Print: April 26, 2006, as Kentucky Budget Would Hike K-12 Spending

Kentucky Budget Would Hike K-12 Spending

But some contend amounts fall short of meeting needs.

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Kentucky schools are poised to get their biggest state spending boost in more than a decade, but educators say it won’t be enough to counter a lawsuit arguing the state inadequately finances its K-12 schools.

In the legislative session that concluded earlier this month, Kentucky lawmakers passed a two-year budget with $7.9 billion for K-12 education, a 14 percent increase over the current two-year spending plan. The increase is the highest since the 30 percent jump in the biennial budget for fiscal years 1991 and 1992, according to the state budget director’s office.

That extra spending more than a decade ago responded to the landmark Kentucky Supreme Court decision declaring the state’s school system unconstitutional and ordering the legislature to overhaul the governance of the entire system and improve its financing.

Spending increased incrementally through the rest of the 1990s. Though legislators have been trying to provide more money in recent years, those efforts had been curtailed by the revenue shortfalls that hit Kentucky and most other states starting in 2002.

“There was a pretty strong coalescence around the need to [increase school spending] when the bottom fell out about four years ago,” said Sen. Dan Kelly, the majority leader of the Republican-led Senate. “This is the first time we found ourselves in a … revenue position to fund some of those things.”

The increases in the budget, which is awaiting Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s signature, wouldn’t satisfy the school districts that are suing the state. They cite estimates from school finance studies that found the state is almost $1 billion short of providing districts enough to meet the state’s academic goals.

“It’s encouraging, but [the budget] has not addressed the issue of adequacy, and, as far as I know, it doesn’t make a commitment to do that in the long term,” said Roger L. Marcum, the superintendent of the 3,000-student Marion County schools. He is the president of the Council for Better Education, a coalition of 161 districts that filed suit against the state in 2003.

Teacher Raises and More

Under the budget passed by the legislature, the state would:

• Hike the amount of per-pupil spending from $3,445 in 2005-06 to $3,508 in 2006-07, and then to $3,822 in 2007-08;

• Increase every teacher’s salary by 2 percent for the 2006-07 school year and give every teacher a $3,000 raise the following year; and

• Raise preschool spending to $75.1 million in each of the next two years—a 45 percent increase from current spending.

The budget also would provide $32.6 million to expand the cost of adding two instructional days to the statewide school calendar in the 2007-08 school year.

Gov. Fletcher is reviewing the budget and will decide whether to use his line-item veto on some appropriations, but the first-term Republican supports many of the increases in school spending and is unlikely to change them dramatically, said Virginia G. Fox, the governor’s education secretary.

While the budget would increase spending on those items, it wouldn’t provide enough money for essential elements of the state’s school improvement efforts, said Mr. Marcum and other school advocates.

For example, the state’s program to help districts provide after-school programs and other services would receive $31.9 million in each of the next two school years. Likewise, a program that operates regional family-service centers would stay at its current level of $51.9 million.

What’s more, the budget would not restore money for key elements of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act that the legislature passed in response to the 1989 decision in Rose v. Council for Better Education.

In the state’s recent austere budgets for elementary and secondary education, lawmakers eliminated regional service centers that helped schools struggling to meet state standards and reduced a pool of money for rewarding schools that exceeded them, Mr. Marcum said.

But schools that fail to meet goals under the state’s accountability system are still subject to sanctions and state intervention, said Brent A. McKim, the president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

“The overall funding is still far short of what it should be,” Mr. McKim said.

State judges could eventually decide whether the legislature needs to spend more on schools. The Council for Better Education suit is scheduled to go to trial early next year.

Going to Court

In laying the groundwork for the suit, the council commissioned a school finance expert to analyze the state’s academic goals and its financing of schools. The 2003 study estimated that state was at least $750 million short of providing enough money to meet the goals set in the 1989 supreme court decision. That number is probably higher now because of the small increases in state spending since then, Mr. Marcum said.

But Sen. Kelly said that state lawmakers are committed to fighting the suit.

“We don’t see the lawsuit as having any merit, and it’s not influencing our policies,” he said. School financing “is a political question,” he said. “It’s not judicable.”

PHOTO: Kentucky lawmakers, shown through a glass door, take a break for lunch, during closed-door state budget negotiations at the Capitol Annex in Frankfort on March 25.
—Brian Tietz/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 33, Pages 30,33

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