Maintaining core state funding for K-12 education made the list of high priorities in Gov. Matt Bevin’s annual budget speech, but some advocates worry other proposed cuts and cost shifting measures threaten the state’s constitutional mission to provide an efficient system of public schools.
In his address Tuesday, Bevin said the SEEK formula, which determines state funding for K-12 education, would remain as is. That's around $3,981 per student.
"It's the same as it was the year before," Bevin assured. "It's the highest it has ever been in the history of Kentucky."
The line came as a relief to educators who feared SEEK, which stands for Support Education Excellence in Kentucky, could land in the cross-hairs as lawmakers search for revenue to prop up the state's debt-ridden pension system. Yet a deeper dive into the numbers still has advocates on edge.
"Part of the SEEK formula was not cut. Another part was cut," says Jason Bailey with the liberal-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
Bailey points to language scaling back state support for student transportation, textbooks, and professional development in local school districts as potentially problematic. Although larger districts may find ways to cope, the KYCEP executive director worries smaller ones will not. The new financial strains could widen disparities, he says, and even put the commonwealth on the path toward a legal challenge like the one that resulted in a 1989 Supreme Court decision ruling the state’s school system inadequate.
"We're returning back to levels that we were before our state Supreme Court declared school funding unconstitutional, so there's a real concern about whether we're meeting our obligation to adequately fund schools," Bailey cautions. "This will make that much worse."
Bevin has also outlined a list of 70 government programs slated for elimination, many of which affect education and scholarships.
The Kentucky Education Association called Bevin’s budget a "mixed bag," applauding the plan to fund teacher pensions to the tune of $2.3 billion over the next two years but panning the governor’s rollback of state support for local districts.
Postsecondary funding was little more than a footnote in Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget address, but his proposed biennial spending plan would further cut state funding by 6.25 percent.
Kentucky remains part of a shrinking minority of states that have continued to cut higher education since the 2008 recession. If the governor’s preferred cuts receive the blessing of the General Assembly, UK’s state appropriations will have shrunk by more than 28 percent over that period.
Wednesday, UK President Eli Capilouto said the school is still evaluating the potential impact of the cuts, which work out to around $16 million. While it’s early in the budgeting process, UK spokesman Jay Blanton says the university will keep telling its story in Frankfort while thinking ahead.
"When we do face cuts, we're going to plan strategically," Blanton says. "We don't believe in across-the-board cuts. President Capilouto believes in doing everything we can to maintain and enhance academic quality."
One looming question is what another round of state cuts could mean for tuition. While tuition has steadily risen for more than a decade, growing to double the rate most freshmen paid in 2005, Blanton notes a reduction in the rate of tuition increases in recent years, despite declining state support.