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Study finds school spending for rural Kentucky district not helping performance

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(The Center Square) – A free-market-focused public policy group claims public school systems are receiving sufficient funding yet they’re not producing desired results.

The Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions released the study on Jackson County Public Schools on Thursday. The district serving the southeastern Kentucky county, which has the 12th-lowest median income out of the state’s 120 counties, received $23,676 in per-student funding for the 2022-23 school year. That was $1,055 more per student than Fayette County Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, received, and 17.6% higher than the $20,136 average across all districts.

Those figures include local, state and federal contributions. While they did experience a nearly $4,000 per pupil increase in recent years thanks to increased federal funding, the Jackson County district has received allocations above the state average for 20 years, the BIPPS study stated.

The report found that despite the funding, about 40% of the district’s fourth-graders are not proficient in math. Only 8% of eighth-graders in the district were proficient in math.

Among high schoolers, the average ACT score for 11th graders in the district remained below average.

BIPPS President Jim Waters, who presented the findings to the community earlier this week, said the report shows Kentucky’s rural districts are facing problems similar to those of urban school districts and that increased spending isn’t solving them.

After adjusting for inflation, spending in Jackson County has increased more than threefold since lawmakers passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990.

“This trend has occurred for most years in the more than three decades since KERA, whose zealous supporters promised dramatic improvement in our public education system’s performance,” Waters added. “Such improvement has, without question, failed to occur.”

BIPPS has been among the state’s most prominent backers of school choice reforms. Republican lawmakers’ efforts to implement those reforms, such as opportunity grants that would provide eligible families with funding for their children’s education, have been struck down by state courts that found them unconstitutional.

As a result, the General Assembly approved Amendment 2 for the November general election, which would allow voters to decide whether such programs should be allowed across the state.

The vast majority of Jackson County school funds come from state and federal dollars. In 2023, those taxpayers funds accounted for about $7 of every $8 allocated to the school district. That’s compared to about $1 of every $2 for Fayette schools and two-thirds across all Kentucky districts.

Meanwhile, even as the district’s funding has risen sharply, the BIPPS report says it’s not going to pay teachers. The 2023 average salary for a Jackson County teacher was $52,071, roughly 10% higher than their pay in 1990. When taking into account inflation, the report found teacher pay in the district has decreased annually for more than a decade.

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