A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Despite claims to the contrary, state proves again it doesn’t place value on education

LEXINGTON – Just as Robin Williams was finally forced to drop the façade and acknowledge that he really was posing as Mrs. Doubtfire, it’s time for the commonwealth of Kentucky to drop its own façade and acknowledge that it really doesn’t value education despite all declamations to the contrary.

The Kentucky General Assembly, after weeks of wailing and teeth gnashing, finally adopted a $21 billion state biennial budget for 2016-18 that resembles a Jackson Pollock painting – a dribble here, a dribble there, ending in chaos.

Included in the ludicrous document, that finally passed the House 98-1, by the way, are the all-too-common line items slashing state funding for higher education by 4.5 percent, setting the stage for the state’s best and brightest to go peddle their wares elsewhere.

Most state agencies were cut 9 percent, so remember, the next time you require a state service the chances of you actually receiving the help you might need have dropped precipitously – a reality that Gov. Matt Bevin seems to refer to as progress.

Regardless, lawmakers were oh, so happy to announce that K-12 education won’t face the slash and burn confronting most other aspects of state government. Teachers aren’t going to get any raises, mind you, and the cumulative impact of years of underfunding the state’s schools will continue unaddressed. But at least someone will be there when the bell rings in the morning and students will be able to leave in the afternoon no less empty-headed as when they entered.

To all this Bevin declared in an op-ed that “a new day is dawning’’ in the place some 4.4 million folks call home. Of course it looks very much like the old day where education is concerned and certainly in some aspects considerably more dreary. Elementary and secondary education will maintain the status quo, but as everyone who can read in the commonwealth knows, that ain’t nothing to write home about.

As bad as the K-12 budget is, the spending plan for higher education is disastrous just at a time when such venerable institutions as the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville appear to be picking up steam. In addition to the 4.5 percent cuts over the next two years, Bevin is looking to make a budgetary U-turn by unilaterally cutting university spending by 4.5 percent for the remainder of the current fiscal year, rather like pulling a lollipop out of a baby’s mouth. Attorney General Andy Beshear has stepped in and warned Bevin that there’s this tattered, torn and often ignored document called the Kentucky Constitution he may want to reckon with before proceeding, but, like General Pickett, Bevin is charging ahead.

Bevin and the General Assembly are blaming all this on the festering pension crisis, which appears strong enough to plunge all of the state’s finances into the abyss. Decades of underfunding – the words “underfunding’’ and “Kentucky General Assembly’’ seem to go together like “love and marriage,’’ as the old song goes – have created a monster, resulting in a $30 billion unfunded liability in two retirement plans that needs to be addressed.

But rather than bite the bullet and pass what euphemistically is referred to as a revenue enhancement – that’s raise taxes, at least modestly, to the uninitiated – the folks that operate what is often laughingly referred to as Kentucky state government are once again placing the burden on the backs of the commonwealth’s truth-seeking youth.

Kentucky has followed this path to oblivion for about the past 10 years. According to Education News, the General Assembly has slashed the higher education budget multiple times since the onset of the so-called Great Recession in 2008.

This is what Bevin characterizes as a necessary “financial house cleaning’’ which undoubtedly will permit the commonwealth to soar to never seen before heights. How that jibes with a decidedly underfunded and, therefore, underperforming educational system is a question he doesn’t care to, and can’t, answer.

“As a result,’’ the publication stated, “the state typically ranks among the worst in the nation for education investment.’’ The share of state funding to the commonwealth’s nine four-year universities has shrunk from 50 percent in 2007-08 to a projected 26 percent by 2019-20. That can mean only one thing – students emerging from many homes that have suffered from the state’s inadequate educational system in the past, placing them in tenuous economic circumstances, will be forced to pick up a larger share of the tab.

Kentucky, on occasion, over the past 35 years or so, has stabbed at improving the educational system, under the logical theory that companies have no desire to locate in a state that produces nothing but a bunch of mush heads.

In the early 1980s, Gov. Martha Layne Collins, urged on by a clique of lawmakers known as the Young Turks, initiated an education reform effort intended to carry schools into the 20th Century. Her successor, former Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, accused of a variety of sins, both real and imagined, over the years, sought to extend the reform movement and went so far as to go back on a pledge not to raise taxes in order to do so.

Gov. Paul Patton sought to extend reform to higher education in the late 1990s. Now the commonwealth is stuck with this Edsel. Rather than bite the bullet and raise the taxes required to pay governmental expenses, particularly in the area of pensions, government has decided to rob Peter to pay Paul.

This is what Bevin characterizes as a necessary “financial house cleaning’’ which undoubtedly will permit the commonwealth to soar to never seen before heights. How that jibes with a decidedly underfunded and, therefore, underperforming educational system is a question he doesn’t care to, and can’t, answer.

According to the web site WalletHub, Kentucky’s total individual state tax burden is 8.7 percent, placing it 26th among the states. Raising collections by a half percent is not going to kill anyone and it will help resolve ongoing fiscal problems.

Now that would constitute a new dawning.

To be fair, the GA didn’t totally neglect education this go-round. The House, led by Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, managed to include $25 million for a program called “Work Ready” — scholarships that would provide up to two years of free community college education to the state’s high school graduates, covering tuition and fees that federal and state grants or assistance programs do not.

It’s a good idea. But it far from addresses the ills brought on education due to the system’s history of underfunding.

The lone vote against the budget, by the way, came from Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, who, along with Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, offered a tax reform package that would bring in additional revenues to address problems associated with pensions and education.

It sank like a rock. At least there’s one adult in the class.

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Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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