Jim Waters

Public education is big business, costing Kentucky taxpayers $5 billion this year — nearly six times more than human services, four times the amount spent on higher education, three times that of criminal justice and even more than twice what the state spends on Medicaid.

President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) five years ago, which updated federal education law, including giving states four years to begin reporting school-level financial data.

Following that requirement should bring spending in local schools into clear focus, allowing us to see if that huge batch of funding efficiently educates the commonwealth’s children.

The Kentucky Department of Education released its first batch of school finance numbers in May, which, unfortunately is a convoluted batch of obviously wrong-and-meaningless figures.

For example, how likely is it that Paris Middle School in Bourbon County spends more than $1.3 million per student — as was reported — or that three elementary schools in Hardin County spend more than $240,000 on each pupil?

From the other end of the spectrum, does Anderson County Middle School and four Webster County schools really spend less than $7,500 to educate each of their students when spending statewide averaged $14,063 per student during the 2018-19 school year?

Clearly, these numbers are incorrect.

Journalism 101 instructs: “follow the money and you will find what you’re looking for, and a whole lot more.”

But what if it’s impossible to even “follow the money?”

How can you “follow” education dollars at the local school level in Hardin County, where six schools report disbursing more than $31,000 per student — with some reportedly spending more than a quarter-million dollars — while a middle school in the county spends less than $12,000?

Can it really be that Hardin’s North Middle School spends $31,877 per student compared to only $11,476 at West Hardin Middle School when both are in the same district?

Such a dysfunctional financial reporting system offers policymakers no help in forming education policy or ensuring resources get to where they’re needed most, and they certainly don’t help the public see how taxpayer dollars get spent.

Incredibly, the education establishment seems unconcerned and uninterested.

Even after being alerted to the huge out-of-whack funding numbers in Paris and Hardin counties, the information remains uncorrected and without explanation on the reporting websites over four months later.

Perhaps the software being used inadvertently moved decimal points or the people inputting numbers made errors that weren’t caught.

Or perhaps Big Ed isn’t all that interested in parents, taxpayers and conscientious policymakers getting the financial information needed to leverage accountability such data provide into badly needed reforms.

Another problem with the financial reports is the failure to simply add two figures together.

In several cases, reported sums of what’s supposed to be the total of categories for federal dollars designated for personnel and non-personnel spending don’t agree.

Similar problems exist for supposed sums of local and state spending, as well.

Any CPA signing onto financial reports with such irregularities would lose their certification and could find themselves landing in legal hot water.

The current fuzzy reporting also bundles state and local funding together in its financial reports, making it impossible to break out local dollars spent in each school.

That does nothing to help determine the validity of oft-repeated complaints by local officials that they’re not getting enough state-provided Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) dollars for their schools.

The Kentucky Board of Education should be asking questions and holding the system accountable.

Instead, it’s moved in the wrong direction by shutting down its finance committee, which was supposed to bring educational fiscal reporting into focus.

Right now, it’s like ESSA’s school-level reporting requirement doesn’t even exist in Kentucky.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.