Education

Over the next few weeks, NPR will examine the funding imbalances of America’s public school systems.

To start, on Monday they released a set of data showing per student funding as of the 2013 fiscal year. The data are compiled from an Education Week analysis and the U.S. Census Bureau.

They show Jefferson County Public Schools falling short of the national average for how much — or little — it spends on each student every year. The district spends about $10,570 per student, according to the data released Monday. The national average is $11,841.

Although it’s beneath the national average, Jefferson County Public Schools’ per student spending level is higher than surrounding public school districts in Oldham, Spencer, Shelby and Bullitt counties, the data show. It’s also higher than the overall Kentucky average — if only by $10 per student.

But it’s lower than the Anchorage Independent School District, which spends $16,160 per student. About 350 students in kindergarten through 8th grade are enrolled in the Anchorage district, which is situated in the more affluent eastern area of Jefferson County. JCPS has nearly 101,000 students.

As NPR examines how funding imbalances affect student learning, the contrast of Louisville’s two public school districts may serve as a local case study.

But first, it’s important to note that disparities in school funding are nothing new in Kentucky. The Lexington Herald-Leader in 2014 reported on the imbalance and highlighted Anchorage as a well-funded district.

“Everything looks better in Anchorage: teachers’ salaries and experience levels, class sizes, textbooks, computer access, test scores and the future in general,” wrote Herald-Leader reporter John Cheves.

Here’s a quick comparison:

  • Anchorage Independent is considered a distinguished school district, ranking in the state’s 99th percentile, according to data from the Kentucky Department of Education’s 2014-2015 school report card. JCPS needs improvement, according to the same report card.
  • More than half of Anchorage Independent’s elementary students read on a distinguished level and less than 1 percent are novice readers, according to the school report card. By contrast, nearly 28 percent of JCPS elementary students are novice readers, per the report card.
  • And the disparity persists as kids get older. About 9 percent of JCPS middle school students perform math on a distinguished level, compared with nearly 40 percent of middle school students in Anchorage Independent.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said students in better-funded classrooms get better opportunities.

“Dollars don’t guarantee anything, but they do open doors,” he said.

Ample per student funding can allow districts to invest in traditional necessities like textbooks, computers and other supplies.

But the “noncognitive” resources, like health and social services, that more funding can bring into a school district can have an even bigger impact on vulnerable students living in unstable homes, Brooks said.

A Common Gap

So why do student funding gaps exist in Kentucky school districts?

Overall disparities in per student funding levels in Kentucky school districts aren’t as stark as in other states.

A 2015 report from The Education Trust showed higher poverty districts in Kentucky get about 11 percent more funding from state and local resources than other, more affluent districts.

This is due, in part, to the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990, which sought to create more equity among the states school districts, said Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents.

Poorer districts get a larger percentage of the state’s investment. But state funding — and specifically the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky, or SEEK, program — is only as strong as its base, Shelton said.

“The lack of adequacy in the base is hurting every district in the state,” he said.

SEEK funding has remained flat since 2008, which has effectively led to a cut, said Ashley Spalding, a research analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Property tax revenue helps districts supplant absent SEEK funding, Spalding said.

A bulk of funding for the Jefferson County Public School District comes from local sources, like property and occupational taxes, said John Collopy, the district’s director of financial planning and management. Local funds account for 64 percent of the district’s near $865 million general fund budget, he said.

But poorer districts with lower property values still struggle to make up for a lack of state funding.

“That’s where you see the gap,” Spalding said.

In Anchorage, for instance, the median home value is nearly $590,000, according to the U.S. Census. That’s far higher than Jefferson County as a whole.

Addressing the issue of per student funding imbalance could come through examining where tax breaks are being awarded, Spalding said. But more importantly, she said, state funding levels need to be increased.

“We need greater investment,” she said.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.