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Report shows funding gap between Ky.’s poorest and wealthiest districts now worse than in 1990

School desks with orange chairs
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
Overall state education funding hasn’t kept up with inflation, said Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 was supposed to level out school funding across the state. A new report from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy shows it's not working anymore.

Kentucky’s poorest school districts receive nearly $4,000 a year less per student than the state’s wealthiest districts, according to a new report from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank.

Report coauthor Jason Bailey said the funding gap of $3,902 is now worse than it was three decades ago, when disparities prompted the landmark Rose ruling by the Kentucky Supreme Court. In that 1989 decision, justices found state lawmakers were not adequately and equitably funding public education, as required in the state constitution.

The Rose decision drove state lawmakers to pass the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, which created the SEEK funding formula. SEEK is a guaranteed amount of state funding per student. Poorer districts receive more per pupil dollars under SEEK than wealthier districts, which can raise more funding locally through property taxes.

“After KERA passed, we saw a huge improvement in the equity of funding between rich and poor school districts,” Bailey said.

But that progress is gone. Bailey said that’s because the SEEK funding hasn’t kept up with inflation since the mid-2000s.

“It’s not a problem with the formula, it’s a problem with not funding the formula,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the poorest districts with the least to spend per student are concentrated in eastern Kentucky.

“The kids who live in those poorer districts are the ones who see it the most,” Bailey said. “They see it in things like larger class sizes, in shortages of teachers and bus drivers.”

With $3.7 billion in the state’s rainy day fund, Bailey said it’s possible for lawmakers to start to reverse the trend.

“Putting a significant amount of money towards the SEEK formula in the next budget session would begin to turn the trajectory back toward where we want it to go,” he said.

Leaders of the GOP-dominated legislature have touted “record” levels of education spending.

Republicans gave a modest bump to the SEEK base rate in 2022, moving it up to $4,200 per student this year.

However, Bailey said, while the dollar amount may be the highest it's been, districts have also needed more due to inflation.

“The point is not whether this number this year is bigger than last year,” Bailey said. “It’s about whether you’re keeping up and whether you’re correcting some of the mistakes of the past when there were no increases, or even cuts.”

Tom Shelton with the public schools advocacy group The Council for Better Education did not directly answer an inquiry from LPM News asking if the report could prompt legal action similar to the challenge CBE led in the 1989 Rose case.

In an email, Shelton said his group has been “monitoring the underfunding of our schools by the General Assembly for more than 15 years.”

“It is our hope in working with our state education advocates that the General Assembly will be moved to do the right thing in the upcoming legislative session in order to meet their constitutional requirement. We will be watching closely to see what happens,” he said.

Currently, CBE is challenging the state’s charter school funding law.

A spokesperson for the Kentucky Senate Majority leader sent a statement saying the Republican supermajorities “have always prioritized education funding,” and pointed to the “record amount” of funding for education in the last budget, along with lawmakers’ decision to temporarily fund full-day kindergarten for the last two years.

The statement, sent by Angela Billings, also said SEEK has kept up with inflation when factoring in pensions and health benefits.

“Many factors come into play when analyzing education funding, including rising and falling real property values, higher and lower property assessments, and the volatile tax collection rates which vary greatly from county to county,” the statement from Billings reads.

This story has been updated with additional information.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.