By John Garen, PhD
The Kentucky House of Representatives recently passed a state budget that contains an increase in state funding for K-12, including a hike in the base per-pupil funding amount, as well as other items.
Though some House members seemed to be pleased with the increased funding for K-12, this is not where the really important education issues lie. The critical piece for Kentucky education is continued expansion of school choice.
Kentucky’s per-pupil, inflation adjusted funding for K-12 increased almost unabated for 30 years, i.e., an 80% increase from 1990 to 2019, with very minimal improvements in test scores. (See this report.) Also, according to Kentucky Department of Education data, K-12 funding in the Commonwealth for 2019-2020 was almost $15,000 per pupil.
So another round of funding hikes is beyond blasé. It is simply business as usual, while ignoring the problems inherent in the public K-12 system.
The forefront of education reform is enabling families with more and improved schooling choices for their children. In 2021, Kentucky was part of this movement, enacting its first ever program for scholarships for kids who need alternatives to the traditional public school. In 2022, the Kentucky General Assembly has the opportunity to improve upon last year’s effort in this regard by expanding their availability to more families in more areas. Also, though charter schools were authorized in Kentucky in 2017, they have yet to be funded. Hopefully, the legislature will take action this year to fund and encourage charter schools, giving parents even more options.
Perhaps the most well-known success story of school choice is Florida. Since the early 2000s, Florida has been at the vanguard of facilitating more schooling options for families. And from 2003 to 2017, Florida’s children have shown greater test score improvements than Kentucky’s. Moreover, according to federal data that I have examined, during that same time period, Kentucky’s inflation-adjusted, per-pupil funding rose by about $1,500 . . . while Florida’s actually fell by about $900. This is a stunning double dividend; better outcomes with less money.
Of course, this dual dividend in Florida has not happened by magic. There’s a lot of hard work involved to figure out and implement schooling options that work for different families. But Florida’s school choice efforts have enabled and incentivized parental choice and school competition that spurred these things to happen.
Thus, the real key to improving K-12 schooling in Kentucky is not another dollop of funding. It is allowing parents wider options and encouraging schools to open up and provide those options. Let’s continue to press our state legislature to do so.
Dr. John Garen is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Kentucky and is a policy advisor for Commonwealth Educational Opportunities.