November 21, 2013

Inadequate Funding

Since well before I was born, starting with the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990, Kentucky has established a national presence as an education innovator. In some of the state’s greatest education coups then and thereafter, policy reform was achieved methodically, always led by a variety of committed and passionate stakeholders. Teachers, parents, business and civic leaders, and lawmakers all sitting down together with the goal of taking Kentucky from the bottom of the barrel to where we are now—closer to a top-tier state in public education.

Faced with new major challenges, and with 30 years helping to spearhead these efforts now under the Prichard Committee’s belt, there is no better time to mobilize yet another stakeholder in improving Kentucky schools. The students that spend upwards of 40 hours a week in a classroom. And so it is that I am here, as a student and as a member of the Prichard Committee, to provide another perspective on the effects of inadequate funding.

I’ll be honest. When asked to provide a student perspective on the impact of funding in Kentucky public schools, I was immediately fraught with a mixture of nervousness and wonder. Nervousness because, of course, I would be speaking in front of a terribly intimidating crowd. And wonder because I was really wondering how I could possibly pull this off.

The last time I was part of a group that went before the full Prichard Committee membership—at the organization’s spring meeting in Northern Kentucky, we received a lot of support from the members, but we also were dealt the tough critique that our founding group, composed mainly of high-achieving students from Central Kentucky—simply wasn’t representative. We took that concern to heart. The  Student Voice Team’s long-term vision is to amplify the voices of all types of students in Kentucky. We eventually want to represent students from all regions and from all academic and social backgrounds.

We know this is critical because truly, there is no one “Student Voice.” Which makes sense really, I mean, if there were only one “Adult Voice” things in Congress would be getting done much faster.

Students, like adults, are not a monolithic mass. So when faced with the task of giving the student perspective on inadequate funding, I knew that at a minimum, I needed to cast a wide net. I sent texts and emails, reached out on Twitter and Facebook, and questioned peers in person. “In what ways, if any, have budget restrictions affected your life in school?” The responses were plentiful, and by sharing a few of them today, I hope you agree that they also underscore a sense of urgency. There are real people behind our underinvestment in Kentucky schools, and students are feeling the pinch.

We begin here in Central Kentucky with Mahika Gupta, a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and a member of our Student Voice Team. Mahika describes how many of her classes are extremely overcrowded. Classes her teacher tells her used to have 22 students in them now have upwards of 30. Mahika struggles to get the individual attention she needs in some subject areas because it seems almost impossible for one teacher to manage the entire class.

Further west, Naomi Kellogg, a recent student at John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown corroborates Mahika’s story. She explains how, in her freshman year, there was only one option for an English class. Practically speaking, this meant that students of all abilities were thrown into a single room without regard to level or achievement. While Naomi sought to receive feedback on her writing and improve her skills, she instead was stuck going over middle school topics as the teacher focused on accommodating the stragglers. She acknowledged her teacher tried her best to help, but in a class with over 30 students all of vastly varying skill levels, this was hard to do. To this day, Naomi feels that she gained virtually nothing over the course of the entire year in that class.

Mahika and Naomi give voice to some of the harder data. Looking no further than just outside this hotel, Fayette County enrollment statistics tell us that three out of Lexington’s five public high schools are over capacity by more than 400 students.

Then there are the textbooks.

SVT members hold up the old textbooks for the audience
SVT members hold up the old textbooks for the audience

Math textbooks at Dunbar are supposed to be purchased every 7 years, but the last time the school was able to purchase updated ones was in 2003. Even then, many calculus classes did not get new books. And pardon the expression, but here, you can just do the math: If you are taking calculus at my high school today, there is a very good chance your book is at least 17-years old.

You could be really confused taking some history courses at Dunbar because the majority of the textbooks used still have George W. Bush as the current president in his first term. Granted, it is the son and not the father, but you get the point: these history books themselves are ancient!

Angela Wei, a junior at Dunbar expresses complete bafflement at the situation. “I spend $130 in student fees,” she says, “and I still have a dilapidated textbook, and no access to e-books, or technology. Where’s this money going?”

Browning Casey, a senior at Hopkinsville High School remembers how during his sophomore year in Geometry, he at first loved the fact that he was never assigned any homework. But the excitement wore off when he learned exactly why that was. Apparently, there was only one set of geometry books which had to be shared among 4 different classes and in fact, students were not even allowed to take the books home. Unfortunately for Browning, this meant once the material began to get more difficult, he was out of luck. It was either you got it in class, or you didn't.

The lack of funding for textbooks also presents a very real problem for AP courses. In order for a class to be designated AP by the College Board by a school, the course must fulfill certain requirements. In many AP Science courses, one of those requirements is that each student has access to a college level textbook that was published no more than 10 years ago. Many chemistry and biology classes in my own school are reaching that ten-year mark and, according to the teachers I consulted, there seems to be no plan of what to do about it. And it’s no wonder!

Over the past six years, funding for textbooks has decreased from 21 dollars per student to zero. Kentucky schools, it seems, simply don't have the resources to buy the textbooks necessary for classes.

Textbooks are integral to learning in many classes throughout a student’s educational career. The fact that some students don't have access to them, coupled with the fact that those that do often find them in such a decrepit state is a tangible symbol representing Kentucky’s funding priorities.

In some instances, the effect of inadequate funding is less visible but even more insidious. Will Slusher a high school student from Harlan, Kentucky tells about how his school had to lay off three teaching positions which knocked him out of taking AP Chemistry, AP US History and several other elective courses, courses that are imperative to be competitive for spots in top colleges and universities. Additionally, as the son of two teachers, Will was affected even more personally by the budget cuts.

“My dad was an assistant principal for close to 20 years,” he told me, “but they completely cut his position this year so now he's back teaching, taking a pay-cut in the process. My mom was a librarian but they cut her down to half a day so she had to start acting as both the guidance counselor and the librarian in order to work full time.”

Harlan isn't the only place feeling the pain of teacher lay-offs. Jefferson County laid off 41 teachers this year, Oldham another 30. Even those teachers lucky enough to keep their jobs are seeing their pay anywhere from 0 to 5600 dollars less than at their highest point. All the while the cost of living and health care skyrocket.

Budget cuts can also affect a student’s academic success in other ways. Three weeks ago, the Student Voice Team travelled out to Whitesburg, Kentucky to speak with students from Letcher County Public Schools about a variety of education policy topics. When we asked if they ever encountered anything relating to the impact of budget restrictions, one student shared his story about wanting to play football.

This student, whom we’ll call “Robbie” to protect his privacy, told us about how he got excited to try out for the team but when he went to do so, he found out that he would have to pay over 100 dollars for the uniform. Robbie explained that since he lived with just his mother who worked very hard to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, 100 dollars was a lot. He couldn't afford the uniform and the school apparently couldn't either. When pressed, Robbie admitted that though he valued his education enough to put up with serious bullying and a two-hour commute for 4 years, he struggled throughout and just barely graduated.

Studies show that students who participate in extracurricular activities that engage them outside of the classroom are much more likely to achieve academic success. For many students, sports are the only reason they keep coming to school and keep their grades up so they remain eligible. At the point where a Letcher County student can’t play football because his school lacks the adequate funds to provide him with a uniform when he can’t provide for himself, his education suffers.

These stories tell us something.

The current level of funding for Kentucky Public Schools has a profound impact on students across the state regardless of their race, socio-economic status, or achievement level. The sample of voices I share with you today is just a snapshot but it gives us a pretty clear picture that more than a few students are questioning why their schools are not a priority investment.

It doesn't take a college degree, a fancy title, or years of experience to understand that as inflation goes up, as the number of students go up, as facilities and textbooks decay, as staff healthcare costs go up, and as energy costs go up, the amount of money it takes to educate one Kentucky student also goes up. It’s time we began to do something about it. If it takes Kentucky students ourselves getting involved in advocating for better investments in our education, well, I can’t speak for everyone. But I am here to tell you with confidence and conviction that more than a few of us—spanning high schools across the state—are ready to join forces with you to this end, and what’s more, we are humbled by the opportunity to make a real and lasting difference in our public schools.

This speech written collectively by the Student Voice Team was delivered by Andrew Brennen to the Kentucky Education Action Team and the Prichard Committee at their Adequate Funding Summit.

Andrew Brennen

Andrew Brennen

Andrew is a Senior Advisor and co-founder of KSVT. He is a former member and was previously the Student Director. Andrew graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 2014 and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2019. He is a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.