The Kentucky Department of Education is not trying to quietly rewrite the state’s school funding model, contrary to rumors in education circles.
On the last line of a document outlining additional budget requests for the upcoming biennial budget, KDE wants to allocate $8 million over two years for a “SEEK rewrite.” A few education experts and watchers though the state was secretly trying to change the SEEK formula, which determines how much districts receive per student.
But that isn’t accurate, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said. The request for funds, should they make it to the final budget in October, will go to new software to run the formula’s system.
“If that system fell apart, we’d be in a lot of trouble,” Lewis told reporters.
Department officials shared a first look at the potential $10 billion biennial budget and additional budget requests like the software with the board at their meeting Wednesday. Robin Kinney, a KDE associate commissioner, said the proposal is a rough draft.
Changing the SEEK formula did still come up. Altering the per-pupil funding system would be a “heavy, heavy lift,” the board chairman Hal Heiner said. It would require a statutory change, one Heiner said has a “slim” chance of happening.
Some experts believe it will take a fundamental change in the system to implement the kind of long-term charter school funding mechanism Lewis has described in the past.
Last year, Lewis said that he’d like to see a funding system that allows state and local dollars to follow students to any school they choose — traditional or charter.
The next legislative session — a budget year — is over six months away.
Instead of a focused discussion about the draft budget, the state board of education launched into a lengthy, abstract conversation about restrictions on the budget and how limited they are in making changes because of it.
Around 60% of KDE’s budget goes to schools due to the SEEK funding model. The vast amount of money KDE handles will “pass through this building and into schools,” the board member Gary Houchens said.
The state department is bound by state law to allocate money to certain things, leaving a small chunk for KDE to play with.
After suggesting Kentucky was spending too much on education earlier in the day, Kathy Gornik then complained that KDE was too restricted on how it can use the small amount of funding it controls.
“I’m just kind of distressed … we’re going to rubberstamp this … and the kids! We’re still going to have a gap,” she said of the budget before it was presented, audibly exasperated. “What the heck are we doing?”
Gornik, the board’s finance committee chairwoman, said repeatedly lawmakers, who dictate the majority of the budget, face no consequences for limiting the state’s education system. Lawmakers are too focused on re-election than the education budget, she asserted.
Board members seemed to want a massive overhaul of how Kentucky approaches education funding. Board member Rich Gimmel suggested Gov. Matt Bevin should declare a state of emergency to discuss education issues.
Gornik said lawmakers should have to visit a “failing school” or send their kids to one. Families “stuck in a failing school” should be allowed to leave, she said, saying funding should be able to follow the student — echoing Lewis’ charter funding idea.
Let the free market sort it out, and let the bad schools fall away, she added. Competition “slaps you upside the head” and keeps you customer-focused, Gornik said.
Those students could also receive something Gornik called “school stamps” — “like food stamps” — to head to a different school than their public school. The idea already exists as school vouchers, a controversial education reform concept that provides state funding for students to pay for private schools.
Lewis centered his report around how more education funding is not a silver bullet for improving schools, but also needed policy reforms for success, sparking Gornik’s initial comments Wednesday morning.
After 45 minutes of back-and-forth, Kinney, the official there to present the budget, joked they may need to throw the proposal out of the window. No vote was taken. The budget is expected to be finalized in October.