The updated federal law governing K-12 education policy signed by President Obama in 2015 included a requirement that reformers hoped would reveal how much bang taxpayers get for the $700 billion spent each year on the nation’s public schools.
The law gave states until the 2018-19 academic year to include on their annual report cards each school’s financial information.
Kentucky’s education bureaucracy initially failed the test by leaving completely blank the areas reserved for per-student spending on the state’s 2018-19 school report cards and failing to even provide a spreadsheet marked “School Level Spending.”
The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) tardily but finally made per-student information from the 2018-19 school year available at the end of the 2019-20 year while the pandemic raged.
Yet many answers demonstrate a clueless — if not careless — attempt to fulfill the school-level financial requirements.
For instance, the “Financial Transparency Section” swears Paris Middle School spends more than $1.3 million to educate each of its students, which — to offer the understatement of the pandemic — isn’t only more than the average $14,000 per-pupil spending in the commonwealth during the 2018-19 academic year but also adds up to $194 million in one small-town middle school.
Unmistakably incorrect per-pupil financial information wasn’t limited to a small middle school in Bourbon County, however.
Bluegrass Institute education analyst Richard Innes in a soon-to-be-released study reports the sum exceeded the reported spending of four different funding categories involving federal, state and local dollars by more than $1,000 at 71 Kentucky public schools.
Identifying on the KDE’s spreadsheets for each school how the sum of the four categories representing the “buckets” where education funding is placed for each school’s student is so obviously wrong by thousands — even tens of thousands — of dollars in many cases isn’t that difficult.
Murray High School’s report card, for example, indicates the school received $587 and $183 per student in federal personnel and non-personnel funding, respectively, and $17,867 and $2,760 in state and local dollars for personnel and non-personnel use, in that order.
Any third-grader enrolled in a Murray Independent school can add the four numbers and give you the correct answer: $21,397.
However, the school’s report card wrongly claims the total is $38,885, which exceeds the sum of the parts by a whopping $17,488 per student and — considering 480 students attend Murray High — amounts to an $8.4 million school-wide mistake.
Wrong information also exists at the other end of the spreadsheet, where the reported total per-pupil spending of $1,686 reported at Sutton Elementary School in Owensboro would generate less than $34,000 in a 20-student class-
Not only does such an amount fail to come close to covering that classroom teacher’s salary, which, on average, is $53,000, it also provides no resources needed to keep the lights on at a brick-and-mortar school.
As Innes notes, developing a simple review process with a “reasonableness check” would help “remove gross errors and highlight other figures that at least warrant more checking.”
Also needed is a much clearer financial accounting system to replace the KDE’s overly complex and largely useless MUNIS program.
In fact, the gathering and reporting of education finances should be taken out of the bureaucracy’s hands altogether and given to an independent civilian committee established by the legislature and populated with finance experts working alongside representatives from the education, business and research communities to provide Kentuckians and their lawmakers with meaningful and usable school-level spending inform-
While complex, impossible-to-understand and just flat-out wrong data strengthens the position of those who oppose changing the status quo, it reveals little about the bang taxpayer-parents get for their bucks or educational approaches that work better at reasonable costs.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.