The Richmond Register

September 24, 2012

Shoot for bang for the buck in public schools

By Jim Waters
Bluegrass Institute

— There is an upside to Kentucky’s budget crunch: It forces everyone from legislators to agency heads to school superintendents to get the most out of every buck mailed in by taxpayers.  

Lean budget times can also produce shining – and refreshing – examples of how some public servants refuse to make excuses and simply succeed with the resources available.

For instance, a recent Bluegrass Institute report entitled “Bang for the Buck 2012: How efficient are Kentucky’s schools?” reveals that some Kentucky school districts spend far less than the state average of $10,814 per pupil and yet are producing above-average ACT results.

Graves County schools, for example, is spending more than $2,000 less than the state average on each of the more than 4,000 students in its district, yet its ACT Composite score is 19.4, significantly higher than the state average of 18.8.

But Grave County’s performance – and the performances of several other districts around the commonwealth – addresses another issue that often arises when comparisons between school districts are attempted: poverty.

Without fail, whenever the issue of holding schools and teachers accountable for their performance arises, the usual knee-jerk reactions offered by defenders of our public education system’s overall mediocrity usually center on lack of funding and high poverty rates.

Yet Graves County is achieving above-average academic results with below-average spending although 56 percent of its students come from low-income homes that qualify for free- and reduced-cost lunches.

More than 60 percent of the 8,410 students who attend school in the Laurel County district – one of the state’s largest – come from low-income homes. Yet the district produced a 19.5 ACT score last year while spending $806 less per pupil than the state average.

Graves County Superintendent Pete Galloway has a different mantra than the excuse-making, accountability-avoiding refrains that we hear so much of today.

“In our school district, we strive for excellence – no exceptions, no excuses,” he said.

How refreshing. There is no hint of pointing fingers, accusing taxpayers of being cheapskates or attempting to blame problems on parents or poverty.

Are parents important? Absolutely. Is poverty an issue? Yeah.

I’m sure Galloway and every superintendent achieving more with less would tell you: “Yeah, we’d like more money. Sure, we wish all parents were engaged. Ideally, poverty would not exist.”

But that’s not what you hear from Galloway.

Instead, he simply says: “In the Graves County Schools, we believe number one that all kids can learn and rise to our expectations.”

I believe “all kids” includes children from poor and less-than-ideal home situations, doesn’t it?

If more funding would somehow magically – in and of itself – produce a better education system, how is it that:

• Owsley County schools spend $16,049 per pupil and yet had a district ACT Composite score last year that was 2 full points below the state average?

• Frankfort Independent spends $2,478 more per pupil than the state average and yet had a district ACT score significantly below the state average?

• Covington Independent spends $2,397 more per pupil than the state average yet produced an abysmal 15.6 ACT Composite score?

• Knox County spends $11,230 per pupil but the best it can do is offer one of the lowest ACT Composite scores in the entire commonwealth?

Blaming Kentucky’s failing schools on a lack of funding is about as legitimate as blaming low attendance at UK’s football games this year on a lack of people residing in Lexington.

Since the Kentucky Education Reform Act was passed in 1990, inflation-adjusted spending on public education has nearly doubled.

In too many districts, test scores – and expectations – have not kept pace.

Jim Waters is acting president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.freedomkentucky.org/bluegrassbeacon.