The way Daphne Patton remembers it, it was more money than she’d ever seen.
It was 1990, and the Kentucky Supreme Court had declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional. Within a year, a lot more money started flowing to the poorest school districts, a 50 to 60 percent increase in their budgets.
Patton, an elementary school teacher from Wolfe County in eastern Kentucky, says schools had an abundance of resources, “everything we needed.”
The ruling forced lawmakers to re-imagine how Kentucky would pay for its schools by mandating that they reduce disparities between rich and poor districts.
“The best of the best things happened for our kids,” Patton recalls. “We were able to buy books. We were able to invest in technologies.”
More than a third of people in Wolfe County live in poverty, but the district was able to hire more teachers. Patton says that solution is the kind of thing wealthy school districts take for granted. But this is Appalachia, she adds: Here, education is akin to an escape plan from poverty.
Patton hears this from the parents of her fifth-graders all the time: “I want my kids to do better than I did. They need to find a good job.”
Patton says parents also want to know how they can help. “But the bottom line is, they can’t. I send homework home that parents can’t do.”
Stories like that were commonplace in a district with literacy and high school graduation rates among the lowest in the country.
And that’s what led Wolfe County and 65 other poor districts to file their landmark lawsuit in the mid-1980s.
Before the state’s highest court, they argued that they couldn’t raise enough money locally to pay for good schools. And that, as long as school funding was unequal and subpar, those literacy and graduation rates would never improve.
“I think Kentucky had a moment when it looked in the mirror and we saw that we were achieving at very low levels,” says Brigitte Blom Ramsey. She’s head of the Prichard Committee, an influential nonprofit that lobbies for better schools in Kentucky.
She says the court’s decision in 1990 — a sweeping victory for Wolfe County and the other districts — changed the education landscape throughout the Bluegrass State.
Lawmakers quickly passed legislation that amounted to a complete overhaul of the K-12 system. And by the mid 1990s, it was paying off. Reading and math scores shot up. More students were graduating and going on to college. A lot more.
“What Kentucky did in 26 years’ time,” says Blom Ramsey, “was bring itself up from the very bottom of the barrel in education rankings to the middle of the pack and above.”
Among the most significant of the changes was a new funding formula that guaranteed a minimum amount of money every district would receive from the state every year.
But a funding gap between rich and poor schools remains in Kentucky, in part because lawmakers did not deal with the fundamental imbalance that comes with a reliance on local property taxes.
In a property-poor district like Wolfe County, for example, a 4 percent increase in property taxes generates no more than $20 per student. The exact same increase in Kentucky’s richest district generates more than $450.
So despite all the gains, educators in poor districts still struggle to catch up.
Here’s another obstacle: The Legislature has not approved any significant increases in overall school funding since 2008. So, with the state budget flat, the remaining disparities are now frozen in place.
At Campton Elementary School in the southern part of Wolfe County, the social studies textbooks, for example, are more than 12 years old.
“We’ve got good kids,” says Superintendent Kenny Bell, himself a graduate of Wolfe County High School. “The hope comes from their teachers and staff here who touch their lives, but they do have enormous challenges.”
Right now he’s facing a tough decision: whether to shut down the district’s early college academy. Bell says the district doesn’t have the $40,000 it needs to keep the program alive.
“I feel like our children are being betrayed,” says Bell. Which is exactly what Kentuckians were hearing 26 years ago.