Op-Ed: Red Tape, Regulation & Lack of Funding Hurt Our Schools
I’ve always loved the saying, “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”. It seems to me it applies to our conversations about education these days.
Those of us in the business community typically don’t think of schools as large employers with complicated budgets, a lot of governing regulations, and political dynamics that often hinder outcomes.
But they are.
In many communities, schools are one of the largest employers. Three of the top ten largest employers in NKY are schools; Boone County School District, NKU and Gateway.
If you combine the number of students and employees Boone County’s Superintendent Dr. Poe is responsible for, it totals nearly 25,000 souls (21,000 students + 3,700 employees).
Fort Thomas Independent Schools (FTIS) is one of the largest employers in Fort Thomas, and one of the largest in Campbell County.
That is why we want folks like Dr. Poe and Gene Kirchner (FTIS Superintendent) in the room when discussing regional issues (taxes, workforce, transportation, etc.).
And just like large businesses, innovation can be a challenge for Kentucky school districts when dealing with state and federal regulations.
For example, when trying to get students to internships or college classes, schools have to comply with mandated “seat time” rules. That is the time kids are “in their seats” learning (at least 6 hours a day). That requirement makes it difficult for students that may be receiving “on the job” training or college courses.
Time spent after hours on college campuses, or in businesses, is considered “supplemental hours”. Travel time to and from doesn’t count.
The complicated nature of tracking and adhering to requirements can quickly get overwhelming.
When you add testing requirements and new initiatives that are implemented without adequate funding, you quickly understand an educator’s frustration.
Then there’s the matter of how schools are funded. Kentucky dishes out money based on a complicated SEEK formula (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky). While well intentioned, it doesn’t favor certain areas of the state. In Northern Kentucky, the bulk of school districts now contribute more in local tax dollars than they receive from the state. In my opinion, this is a violation of the Kentucky State Constitution, which tells us that education is the state’s responsibility.
Gene Kirchner recently told me, “In Fort Thomas, education is largely a local proposition. We receive less than 40% of our revenue from the state. If it weren’t for the incredible community support that exists here, it would be a very difficult situation.”
That is why you hear so many educators and local school board officials talking about the potential benefits of tax reform in Kentucky (which is desperately needed in my opinion).
Then there are rules that surprise most employers. Superintendents can’t hire their own principals directly, and oftentimes dismissing /firing a teacher is difficult because the process can involve a tribunal review that overturns superintendent decisions more than 75 percent of the time. The tribunal process is very costly for everyone involved.
When Governor Bevin talks about “cutting the red tape” for businesses, I think there are many educators that would say, “Take a look our way!”
Right now, new regulations being discussed in the legislature might add to the hardship.
For example, there are legislators advocating for a shorter school year, and therefore a longer summer. The idea is, this would benefit tourism. But they need to consider all the unintended consequences. Not only do state mandates like that reduce local control, they could also create some unexpected hardships on school districts.
Out of the 21,000 students in Boone County schools, an average of 4,000 require extended school learning, or summer school. To put that in perspective, there are nearly as many kids in the Boone County summer learning program than Campbell County has in the entire district.
If the state dictates when schools must start and finish, they may be forcing even more students into summer school. Why? Because a reduced school year reduces the amount of time districts can spend working with kids through remediation.
Beyond that, most educators and school boards are fighting for more time educating kids, not less.
“American students already attend school fewer days than many of the industrialized nations of the world. From an educational perspective, it would be very difficult to argue the benefit of limiting the school year and extending summer break. That is simply not what is best for children,” Kirchner explained to me.
There are other challenges too. In Boone County, over 12 percent of kids have special needs. Over 40 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch (8,400) and are living below the poverty line. We often think of poverty as an issue isolated to our urban core; however, there are more kids in poverty in Boone County Schools than in all of the NKY river cities combined.
“All day kindergarten” isn’t offered to any family in Boone County. Even if they had the money for teachers, they don’t have the space.
So, as we talk about ways to improve education, we need to untangle the complicated challenges facing our districts and fully understand their scope.
We also need to recognize the good results that are being produced, in spite of those challenges.
In Fort Thomas, the average ACT composite for seniors in the class of 2016 was 24.7, and the graduation rate was over 96 percent.
Boone County’s senior students scored a composite of 21.7 on the ACT, and the graduation rate is 93.3 percent which is well above the 89.7 percent state rate.
If you think their results aren’t good enough, and you choose to judge performance against private schools, or even some other public school districts, I submit that you must compare all the data. The good and the bad. Otherwise, you’re comparing apples to oranges.
Have a conversation with your teachers and school officials before you make your mind up about education policies. Talk to the Superintendents, the KEA, the Northern Kentucky Education Council, and local school board members.
Before jumping to conclusions about our schools, try walking a mile in their shoes.
Brent Cooper is president of Covington-based C-Forward