By John Garen
BB&T Professor of Economics, University of Kentucky
One of the worst feelings for parents is to see their child struggling in school, especially when they’re powerless to help. Such is the plight of all too many Kentucky families. Oftentimes, parents have no realistic alternatives for their child who is floundering in a dysfunctional or poorly-fitting school. This is particularly true of disadvantaged families who cannot afford private school. Moreover, many public school teachers can reach kids who don’t fit the usual mold, but the rules of the school bureaucracy often impedes them from doing so. To remedy these issues, school reform is sorely needed. But the reform that is needed is one that allows parents options, alternatives, and choices beyond the assigned public school … and that enables teachers to go outside the bureaucratic box.
Regrettably, Kentucky’s reforms have barely moved in this direction. Ours stem from the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990, which, among other things, substantially increased K-12 funding, especially for poorer districts. Funding differences between high- and low-income districts declined after KERA and total funding rose. The latter has been very substantial. Federal and state data show that, after taking out inflation, per pupil funding (inclusive of state, local, and federal) rose from $7,712 in 1990 to $13,728 in 2018, i.e., it rose 78% faster than inflation. It increased nearly every year except right after the Great Recession.
Unfortunately, there has been little improvement in overall academic performance for K-12. For example, average grade 4 reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) rose only 4% between 1992 and 2019. Scores for grade 4 math rose by 11%. Reading and math NAEP scores have barely changed for a decade. Likewise for statewide ACT scores. Twenty percent of Kentucky fourth-graders score “novice” on the state’s (K-PREP) reading test, which likely means that they can’t read. While there are some excellent public schools and programs, these apparently are the exceptions. The system as a whole, as shown by the academic test scores, has precious little to show for itself. Yet the cost to taxpayers continues to rise.
It’s important to embrace reform that actually works. Successful programs in other states have enabled more options and choices for parents … and for teachers. These typically take three forms. One is scholarship tax credits. These allow tax credits for donations to organizations that fund scholarships for low-income families whose kids need out of the public schools. Another is public charter schools that operate outside the regular district schools and offer alternatives to parents and teachers. A third is education savings accounts. These are accounts for parents whose kids need an option to the locally assigned public school. Parents direct the funds to the schools/programs they believe is suited for their children.
Each of these enable opportunities for teachers and schools to offer alternative programs and for parents to choose among them. Moreover, this provides a critical layer of accountability for all schools: public, charter and private. If the school doesn’t provide programs good enough to attract students, they decline and are replaced. Indeed, this is one of the great advantages of charters and private schools. Ineffective ones do not linger.
An often-heard complaint, especially about disadvantaged families, is that parents are uninformed and unengaged. Giving these families some real say in where their kids go should help resolve that problem. Moreover, many charter schools understand this issue and take great efforts to engage parents. This helps parents make good choices instead of taking their options away. Also, in these alternative settings, teachers and schools have more flexibility to devise suitable approaches and to adapt to special situations. Parents can more readily find schools and teachers that fit their needs.
Equally noteworthy is the dual dividend that these alternatives offer: they are effective and they use fewer taxpayer dollars. Spending less to get more is always a bargain and is especially important for Kentucky’s state budget strained by pensions and Medicaid.
Kentucky seems on the cusp of adopting such reforms. A bill is before the legislature to enable scholarship tax credits and it could move to fund charter schools.
Unfortunately, many have demonized such reforms and have jumped on the “spend-more-money” bandwagon. The Prichard Committee recently recommended $1 billion more for education ($700 million for K-12) for assorted programs that sound good but no evidence is offered that they are effective. Indeed, the evidence noted above implies that use of funds by the present system has done little to improve education. It makes no sense to simply turn more funds over to the same broken system.
Meaningful reform requires options and choices for families as well as by teachers. Allow options for parents in order to let the children learn … and to let the teachers teach.