Choices and Consequences
Unless you have a large trust fund or have won a big lottery jackpot, you know what it means to make economic choices. Do you buy these shoes, or do you buy those groceries? Do you get the data plan at $25/month or stick with text messages and put $25 a month away for a college fund for your baby (which could add up to about $8,500 by graduation day).
Our state is also making economic choices and our community must be aware that there are consequences to those choices for the 13,000 of our children who are receiving an education at public expense. There was an article in last week’s Pioneer News that outlined some of the cuts to our schools that have occurred over the past three years, but I want to explain why I believe these cuts are harmful to our children and must be reversed. What you, as citizens of this state, do with that information is purely your decision.
In the 22 years since the large infusion of resources that came with the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, supported by our state business and political leaders, the portion of the state budget that has been committed to K-12 education has steadily declined, particularly in the last ten years, and most acutely in the past three years. I will not bore you with a bunch of facts and figures (though bore you I could). Suffice it to say that if we were funded as the state formula indicates our schools should have been funded at 2008 levels, there would be an additional $8 million dollars available this year to provide services for our kids.
I do absolutely believe that the quality of our education system has gotten much better and that is backed up with data. The Quality Counts report, issued annually and generally viewed as a reliable comparison between states, formerly ranked us in the bottom 10 among our 50 states. We celebrated when we rose to 34th, and we celebrate again this year, rising to 14th among all states. As one who is in the schools almost every day, I see teachers and principals succeeding despite pretty substantial barriers presented by student and – yes – parental apathy toward achievement in school. Every year, kids whose family history and motivation indicates they should not be successful, are saved by what can only be called the heroic efforts of caring and committed teachers, coaches, and staff members. I am certain that technology can be better utilized to tailor education to student needs, but the human touch will never be replaceable with a computer program and to have highly trained people available, they have to be paid. We just cannot keep cutting budgets and expect to maintain and provide the needed increases in student services to help our children – who have but one chance to get an education.
By the time a group of children progress from Kindergarten to graduation day, only 84% or so will graduate. This equates to losing 160 students out of a little more than 1,000 at some point in their educational career. This has consequences for our state and nation that include increased welfare spending, increased prison costs, and lower income levels leading to lower tax receipts to address state obligations.
The choice our political leaders have to make is difficult, but it is clear. The Kentucky Constitution requires that the “General Assembly shall, by appropriate legislation, provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the state.” And the Kentucky Supreme Court places the sole responsibility for providing the system of common schools on the General Assembly. The continual erosion of state general funding places the burden on local property tax payers. We all understand that the state is short of money, but the courts have clearly determined that there is no excuse for not providing for the state’s common schools. It is the job of our elected General Assembly to determine how they find the money.
I will close this month with a quote from the 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education: “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments…It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities… it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training… it is doubtful than any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”
This is serious business and the education of our children is not something we should take lightly. Parents and grandparents (and most importantly, children who have no vote) have a great deal at stake in what happens in Frankfort the next two months and should make their voices heard. The phone number for the Kentucky Legislative Message Line is 800-372-7181. My suggested message is that our children’s education is truly the most important investment by the people of this state in our future and it should not be short-changed. Our leaders swore an Oath of Office when taking their seats in the legislature and it must be fulfilled.