In a column May 18 lamenting the fact that in the latest list by NEWSWEEK magazine of the best 100 high schools in the nation Kentucky did not have a representative, while SPORTS ILLUSTRATED listed St. Xavier in Louisville as 14th in the nation among the best “sports high schools,” Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Larry Dale Keeling offered this statement: “Most everyone wants better schools, but not everyone wants to pay for them. And whether we follow the course laid out by the Prichard Committee or some other route, raising the bar for our high schools comes with a hefty price tag.” This is the liberal concept that is usually remarked as the key to improving anything and everything…just raise taxes and the problem is fixed. Following is an article I submitted to Al Smith, convener of KET’s Comment on Kentucky on 19 September 2003. Some updating information set off in brackets has been added. There was a state budget crisis at the time – or at least an alleged one. Not much, if anything, has changed academically in the last year and a half, so this piece is relevant.
Kentucky spends 23 percent more in state funds (61.5%) on elementary and secondary education than the national average (50.1%), according to National Education Association statistics for 2001-2002. Governor Patton claims the figure to be higher, and it appears that close to 70% of Gen. Funds goes to the total education effort. According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, Utah spent $4,692 per pupil in 2000, while Kentucky spent $6,784, or 45 percent more, and was in the top half of the states in spending. Yet, the cumulative percentage of students scoring at or above basic level in national tests vis-a-vis math scores for grade four in 1996 and 2000 and reading in 1998 in Kentucky was 61, compared to 67 in Utah. The cumulative percentage for eighth-grade math and science in 1996 and 2000 and reading in 1998 in Kentucky was 62.6. In Utah, 70.6. The average teacher salary in Utah was $36,049; in Kentucky, $37,234. The national figures: 65, 64.2, and $42,898, respectively. The pupil-teacher ratio in Kentucky was 16.8:1; in Utah, 21.9:1; nationally, 16:1. Utah spent by far the least per student of any state in 2000, and made a point. While demographics might play a role here, it is a minor one. [Note: Kentucky was 90.1% white, while Utah was 89.2% white in 2000, demographics thus playing no role.] In the District of Columbia, probably the worst system in the country, annual per pupil spending was $11,935 and the average teacher’s salary was $48,651, so throwing more and more money at the system is not the answer. Question: Which is needed - more money or better stewardship?
A key provision of KERA [Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990] is the stipulation that education be “substantially uniform throughout the state.” The responsibility set by the legislature for the School-based (or site-based) Council: “The council is to adopt policies relating to instructional materials, student support services, personnel assignments, curriculum, extracurricular programs, and other aspects of school management.” In other words, the S-B Council provision essentially nullifies any possibility of uniformity or standardization even within a local district, much less throughout the state. Students arrive in middle school from widely varying backgrounds and then in high school with the same circumstance vis-a-vis the middle school. This being the case as a practical matter, effective curricula and tests actually cannot be devised for use throughout the state, since the state sets no overall curriculum or standards in any area, nor does the local school board. This glaring inconsistency is never noted in the media or used as an explanation for the poor test grades developed each spring, although the tests do reveal actual conditions of a sort. The only way for the tests to be effective is in teachers simply “teaching the test,” which, though probably largely done now, only indicates how well the student learned how to pass the test. It is vital that the S-B-C concept be nullified. Local superintendents have just been notified via the Court that the S-B-C (principal, three teachers, two parents) is not required to engage a principal recommended/mandated by the superintendent or the school board, but may choose its own, subject, presumably, to certification requirements. It’s little wonder that citizens, at least qualified ones, do not run for school board seats. They have virtually no power, but take constant heat, as is the case locally. Question: Isn't it time to admit that the school-based-council concept is both terribly inefficient, expensive, and defeats any attempt at cohesion or any kind of standardization?
You probably remember that in Elliott [County], for instance, tax bills were not even sent out before the passing of KERA. That’s what brought about KERA, negligence on the part of PVAs, coupled with citizens who would not stand for paying enough in taxes, to have good schools. Topnotch systems, like the Danville system then, got virtually nothing out of KERA, but systems like the [adjacent] Boyle and Lincoln County systems and other systems all over the state got windfalls of huge proportions. KERA was totally unfair and penalized good systems as it bankrolled terribly poor systems that have remained poor. Question: Before any tax money is spent on education, shouldn't every district be investigated to see if local PVAs are in compliance with re-valuation laws that specifically mandate methods and times for guaranteeing that equity is enforced?
Under KERA, there are 393 family resource centers, 231 youth service centers and 150 combinations of the two – total centers: 774. These installations provide social and/or referral services, some, if not most, obviously duplicated by agencies such as county health departments or comprehensive care centers, deliver services such as pre-school and day-care (summers included), have little or nothing to do with academics, and can be judged only marginally successful educationally, if at all. In FY 2002, they slurped up $50,094,330, according to state education-department statistics, and $278.7 million between 1991 and 2000. Conservatively allowing $45 million for 2001, the total outlay for social services has been some $373 million, enough to totally wipe out the budget shortfall and pay teachers a respectable wage. Another $45 million or so for 2003 will expand that number to $418 million. [The figure now should easily exceed $500 million.] These centers are still in existence and appear to be little more than social-service agencies, whose loss would have no bearing on education. They should be ended. It boggles the mind to contemplate how much more could have been poured into salaries, new construction, renovations, etc. The same could be said for programs for four-year-olds. School systems are neither designed nor responsible for child-care/baby-sitting services. It was acknowledged some years ago, for instance, that students who did not attend Head-Start were on the same reading level with students who did by the end of the third grade. Head-Start’s greatest value perhaps lies in nutritional aid rather than educational. After an unconscionable outlay of $127 million in the now-rescinded rewards system and another at least 7 million per year spent in the terminated regional service centers, lawmakers began to get the picture. Question: Should the family resource centers and the youth service centers be terminated, since they have nothing to do with academics, and duplicate services already available, thus saving at least $50 million a year?
Some statewide statistics are instructive. In Reading Trend Data last year (figures rounded to nearest whole number), testing indicated that 60 percent of 4th-graders read at a proficient level (thanks to the dissolution of K-3, probably); 56 percent of 7th-graders; but only 29 percent of 10th-graders. According to Total Writing Trend data, 25 percent of 4th-graders were at least proficient, but only 14 percent of 7th-graders. Twelfth-graders got the figure back up to 25 percent, meaning that only a fourth of graduates were actually literate with respect to writing. With respect to Mathematics Trend data, 36 percent of 5th-graders were proficient, but only 26 percent of 8th-graders and 30 percent of 11th-graders. The trend is obvious. As the students progress, the achievement levels diminish, making one wonder if much of the reason has to do with the School-based Councils, the students entering middle school from varying backgrounds and curricula and then entering high school from more varying backgrounds, since the school councils set their own curricula. There should be standardization at least within a local system. Another index is the National Norm Referenced Test Index, in which I believe the state is compared nationally. The national figures for elementary, middle, and high schools were 87, 79, and 75, respectively. For Kentucky, the figures were 73, 69, and 68, respectively, significant decreases. This is a part of the accountability matter. All this material is available online at the Ky. Dept. of Education Web site, and is there for your perusal and interpretation, as well as for others in the media. [At least it was and probably still is for anyone wanting to spend huge amounts of time searching.] Nationally, education is in a state of decline, as has been pointed out continuously for years, and especially as compared with other industrialized nations, and even some third-world countries. Question: Since Kentucky was ranked 22nd nationally in expenditures per year per pupil in 2000 (Dept. of Education figures), but compares unfavorably academically, shouldn't more attention be paid to performance than to dollars?
Much of the waste in funds accrues to a computer mentality. Nationally, there were five students per computer in 2001, most of the buildup occurring in the 90s when computers were relatively expensive. Kentucky is probably close to that figure, even though academic improvement has been negligible. Question: Should computers be in classrooms in which students have not learned the use of the keyboard (touch system), such as those in elementary schools and probably most middle schools? Should more emphasis be placed on fundamentals and less on technology, especially since reading and verbal scores are so low, two things computers cannot address adequately?
In 1967, the Kentucky ACT test score average was 19.9. In 2002, it was 20.0. Between 1996 and 2001, it ranged between 18.6 and 19.5 (KERA era). Between 1994 and the present, Kentucky has lagged behind the national average every year, sometimes by nearly a point and a half (1996 and 2000). It is the best measure of achievement, since most of the Kentucky graduates (72 percent in 2002) [75% in 2003-04; average score - 20.3; U.S.-average -20.9] take this test, rather than the SAT. Kentuckians beat the national average substantially on the SAT, but only 12 percent of students (best and brightest) took the test in 2002. [12% in 2004] Question: Is it reasonable, especially after the huge legislative outlay in 1990 that launched an obviously flawed KERA [based on “outcomes-based concepts,” with self-esteem a priority component], to believe more money will solve this academic problem? Should the legislature have mandated pedagogy, as it did, for instance, in the K-3 debacle, which has been rescinded, that adjustment probably being the main reason that at least 60 percent of fourth-graders can read? Is it now time to place education back in the hands of educators, and begin a standardization process that will keep all students on the same page as they progress through the system?
Questions: (1) Should there be the expensive alternative schools or “Saturday Schools” for the purpose of parking the incorrigibles somewhere to both keep them out of trouble and ease the strain on teachers, as well as enhance the safety of others? Should students be allowed to leave at age 16 (as they are now), and should failing students or students under age 18 be disallowed their driver licenses (as they are now), since the dropout rate due to loss of licenses hasn’t changed in the last few years, as noted in the H-L recently? (2) Should superintendents and administrators be paid inordinately out-of-line salaries, compared to those of other certified personnel? In many ways, they are just glorified clerks under KERA. In Fayette, supers/administrators managed to lose millions in state funds by simply not getting reports to Frankfort on time. (3) Should there be startups of programs for 4-year-olds? Elementary schools already have after-school programs in which the kids, often tired and probably depressed, stay until six o’clock. There is a charge for this. (4) Should $3 million be spent on a new football stadium at the on-the-draft-board new Bryan Station High School when there are already at least four stadiums (probably five, counting Bryan Station), as well as Commonwealth, none of which are used more than a handful of times for football, though they (or at least some) are used for soccer and/or a handful of band competitions? (5) Should a hard look be taken at the need for school counselors, as well as other administrative personnel, both at the highest end of the salary range? (6) With respect to the so-called “learning gap” that exists between African-American children and those of other races (the Asians do best), will the proper attention be brought to the fact that the problem is more social than educational? Seventy percent of African-American babies are illegitimate, usually have no father around, and are raised by mothers and grandmothers, many, if not most, on some kind of welfare and poorly educated themselves. Translated: little chance of success (lack of stable, supportive environment), no matter how much time and money is spent on them. (7) Should an institution like Kentucky State University be allowed to continue an education department in light of the fact that some 40-50 percent of its wannabe teachers flunk the test for qualifying, and are clearly incapable of teaching, no matter how many times they take the test? How much could be saved if KSU were perhaps made into a community college, and many of its buildings turned over to government for use, instead of building new facilities? (8) Should the state test scores be factored into the student’s grades? Elementary kids will instinctively try on tests, whether they matter or not. Many high-school students couldn’t care less about the tests, since they don’t matter at all. You probably remember the lengths to which some systems have gone to entice the test-takers to do well in the interest of gaining the rewards. If this were to happen, the state board would be forced to set standards, curricula, etc. (9) Kentucky is about 33rd nationally in teacher salaries (2000). Shouldn't there be more attention given to improving the system through guaranteeing the best teachers by paying them adequately?
Perhaps you will challenge your experts to do analysis rather than simply accept the department's propaganda? The papers and TV outlets, with few if any exceptions, are pro-KERA, even in the face of its dismal showing. At the end of the 1960 school year, when the USA topped the world in just about everything, the average yearly amount spent nationally per pupil in public schools was $375. At the end of the 2000 school-year, it was $7,392. Allowing for inflation, that figure on the basis of the 1960 number would have been about $2,100. In other words, spending on education is more than three times what it should have been for a system that now is in tatters. Throwing money at it in unreasonable amounts is not the answer. Yes, there has been some need for "extra" things, but this kind of waste is far beyond the envelope.