The following guest editorial was written by Dr. John Garen, BB&T Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky and chairman of the Bluegrass Institute Board of Scholars.
One of the worst feelings for parents is to see their children 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 children floundering in dysfunctional or poorly-fitting schools. This is particularly true of disadvantaged families who cannot afford to enroll their children in a private school. Moreover, many public school teachers who could otherwise reach kids not fitting the usual mold are impeded from doing so by the school bureaucracy’s rules.
To remedy these issues, school reforms are needed which allow parents options, alternatives and choices beyond the assigned public school while enabling 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.
Federal and state data show that, after taking out inflation, per-pupil funding (inclusive of state, local, and federal) rose 78% faster than inflation – from $7,712 in 1990 to $13,728 in 2018. It increased nearly every year except right after the Great Recession.
Unfortunately, there’s 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. Only 20% of Kentucky fourth-graders score “novice” on the state’s (K-PREP) reading test, which likely means they can’t read.
While there are some excellent public schools and programs, they apparently are the exceptions. The academic test scores indicate the system as a whole has precious little to show for itself. Meanwhile, the cost to taxpayers continues to rise.
It’s important to embrace reforms that actually work. Successful programs in other states have enabled more options and choices for parents and 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 regular school districts’ bureaucracy 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 schools and programs they believe are best-suited for their children.
Each of these approaches enable opportunities for teachers and schools to offer alternative programs and for parents to choose among them for what best suits their children’s needs.
Kentucky seems on the cusp of adopting at least some of these reforms. A bill before the legislature would enable scholarship tax credits and it could move to fund charter schools.
Moreover, such reforms provide a critical layer of accountability for all schools: public, charter and private. Schools failing to provide programs good enough to attract students decline and are replaced. Indeed, one of the great advantages of charters and private schools is that ineffective ones don’t linger.
An often-heard complaint, especially about disadvantaged families, is that parents are uninformed and unengaged. Giving 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 away their options.
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’re effective and 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.
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 which sound good but offer no evidence of being 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 teachers teach.