TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

December 27, 2013

Locals know best how to spend education dollars


The Times-Tribune

CORBIN — Critics of education-reform proposals that empower parents with school choice and lessen the bureaucracy’s control often scold: “Leave education to the experts. They know best.”

Does this mandate also apply to education spending?  

Leon Smith, Russellville Independent Schools’ superintendent, told Bowling Green Daily News education reporter Chuck Mason that he was forced to forego a needed school bus a couple of years ago in order to purchase new math textbooks for his district. Smith also drove the five-and-a-half hours to Lebanon, Ind., and picked up the books in order to save his district more than $3,000.

Such dedication is admirable. It also is totally unnecessary in a state with per-pupil revenues of $11,058.

Nearly every teacher and administrator seems forced to make such tough choices – between textbooks and transportation, between new computers and classroom repairs.

Jason Hubler, a Jefferson County elementary teacher who was a 2013 Kentucky Teacher of the Year nominee, once told a national union trade magazine that he dug into his own pocket to purchase classroom supplies and rebuild computers for his fifth-grade students.

For the past few years, new teachers in Jefferson County teachers have lined up outside a union hall at 7 a.m. on sunny summer days in August carrying large tote bags in order to collect as many supplies as possible for their classrooms in an annual giveaway made possible by local businesses.

The contributions and “New Teacher Supply Warehouse” giveaways are noble, but the necessity of it should cause great concern among teachers, parents, and even union leaders – who organize the project – in a state where $12.4 billion in combined state and local dollars will be spent on Kentucky public schools just during the current fiscal year alone.

Could the problem be more about who makes the spending decisions and how the money gets spent than it is about how many dollars actually get allocated for education?

The Kentucky Education Reform Act passed 23 years ago and effectively addressed the “how much” problem by changing school-funding policy. KERA closed the resource gap between rich school districts with high property values and tax revenues and poor ones lacking the same economic potential.

However, such centralization of government entities, including public education systems, creates unintended consequences. In this case, KERA resulted in way too many decisions being made by Frankfort that should be left up to local districts.

Mason writes that the state “hasn’t provided textbook money to public school districts for about eight years, so officials noted they’ve had to scurry to get relevant books in students’ hands.”

He also cites Butler County Superintendent Scott Howard’s concerns about his district’s out-of-date calculus textbooks, that he’s had to use General Fund money to purchase a new reading series for elementary students, and that he would have to issue bonds to generate the nearly half-million dollars for computer upgrades and purchases “because we can’t take that money out of the general fund.”

Even the most politically progressive among us should agree that Kentucky’s education funding system is dysfunctional when struggling teachers have to dig into their own pockets and when superintendents are not allowed to even use the school revenue provided by their districts’ own taxpayers to buy needed textbooks and computers.

Instead of criticizing public charter schools, where administrators do make the spending decisions best for their students and staff, Kentucky’s teachers’ union leaders would be more relevant and productive by demanding that politicians and those in charge of our state’s highly centralized public education system acquiesce to “those who know best.”

The intended consequence of such a change would be that each education dollar gets stretched at least far enough that teachers can keep their own money where it belongs.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.