By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
“I know this is a lot to get your heads around.”
Tom Shelton, outgoing Fayette County Schools superintendent and Council for Better Education (CBE) president and incoming Kentucky Association of School Superintendents (KASS) executive director, got it right. When he made this statement during the KASS winter conference last month, he was only midway through seven hours of presentations on the CBE’s yearlong study of how Kentucky funds public schools and a proposed replacement for the SEEK formula.
The dozens of superintendents in attendance got an in-depth look at not only how the 25-year-old SEEK formula fails to address matters of adequate financial support for Kentucky classrooms, but also how it creates fiscal equity problems between districts – exactly what SEEK was crafted to alleviate.
Shelton admits it may take five to seven years before the proposed “evidence-and-research-based model” – remember that phrase; it’s critical to the issue – may be fully implemented, even if state leaders were to sign on to the concept during the 2016 budget-writing session of the General Assembly.
But before any of those actions happen, CBE and its members have a lot of explaining to do.
One issue is the fact that so few people truly understand how SEEK works, so it’s going to be hard to explain the systemic failings and need for change. Shelton does a pretty good job when he describes SEEK as “an allocation formula” in which the General Assembly decides every two years how much it will spend on K-12 schools, and then has the Kentucky Department of Education divvy the money up based on the formula. District shares vary depending on not just numbers of students but also the demographics, local tax base and far too many other factors to mention.
What is proposed in the CBE’s nearly 200-page study, “Adequacy and Equity for Excellence in Kentucky,” is a funding calculation system based on what each school and district needs “to be successful,” with the bottom line of getting all students to a proficient level of achievement on state assessments.
The research-and-evidence-based model computes what is needed for “success” on the big-dollar issue: personnel. It determines how many core content teachers, special ed teachers, instructional coaches, substitutes, tutors, counselors and administrators are needed for each school and district. Shelton and Hardin County Superintendent/CBE Treasurer Nanette Johnston touted the benefits of this personnel planning tool even if districts don’t get another dime from the state.
In marketing parlance, the primary target audiences for the CBE are the governor and the Kentucky General Assembly. Challenge No. 1 will be the possible ultimate price tag – $9.4 billion a year, roughly $2.4 billion more than the state funds today – which will shut down some lawmakers on the spot.
To sell the idea to legislators will take, in the words of CBE Vice President and Corbin Independent Schools Superintendent Ed McNeel, “all of us speaking with one voice.”
That will require comprehension first before any knowledge-based campaign can take place.
That means all superintendents, district finance officers, board of education members and other advocates for public education in Kentucky must go to school on the plan. At the KASS conference, Shelton and other CBE leaders repeatedly sought comments, reactions, questions and concerns. It was too early then, but they were up front about seeking input from district leaders.
The Last Word
Shelton has a good starting plan: going on the road, presenting an abbreviated version of the December KASS program at the January meetings of all of the state’s regional educational cooperatives. I suspect a lot of superintendents will bring their finance officers for a first-hand update and some critical question-and-answer time.
Replacing SEEK doesn’t have the mandate of a Supreme Court order that spurred the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. To achieve McNeel’s “one voice,” local leaders are going to have to first understand the concept, and then set about the task of making the case in the halls of the Capitol.
And that’s message worth getting out.