State funding cuts are never a good thing, but they’re even tougher for Kentucky’s rural and high-poverty schools

State funding cuts will likely always be a maligned part of the education conversation. Kentucky teachers have known that better than most: over the past decade, funding cuts to K-12 education in the Bluegrass were among the worst in the nation.

Regardless of where you live, teach, or send your kids to school, you’re probably already aware of the universal impact that budget cuts have on school districts. Think fewer teachers, larger class sizes, and years without access to new textbooks and technology that could jump-start students’ learning. These are real challenges, to be sure, and they’re especially tough for the many schools that are already perennially cash-strapped. But the reality is simply that state funding cuts are disproportionately harsh for rural and high-poverty schools, and that’s something worth examining a little more closely.

High-Poverty Schools Depend On State Funding

First, let’s get down to brass tacks. While the federal government is responsible for around 10% of all school funding, the majority comes from local and state levels. Based on a number of factors like demographics, economic segregation, and plain old decision making, school funding can either be progressive, where more money is targeting low-income students than those above the poverty line, or regressive, which works the other way.

Local funding tends to be regressive, so in most cases, those dollars concentrate around schools where there are fewer low-income students. To offset that, most states have progressive spending formulas that target students in poverty. Kentucky is a perfect example of that.

Source: The Urban Institute

The vast majority of states have school funding formulas that are considered progressive, and you can see that pretty clearly in the diagram above by looking at the light blue dots. In other words, most state spending formulas tend to favor students and schools experiencing poverty.

In Kentucky’s case, our state funding formula is actually progressive enough to more than offset local funding. If you look at Kentucky’s red dot above, you’ll see that our total state and local funding leans progressive. In other words, we’re using our funds to target high-poverty districts for the most additional support, and that’s good news.

The bad news is that when budget cuts hit at the state level, that progressive tilt gets thrown off balance, and school districts are forced to rely more heavily upon local funding to continue operations. Perhaps that’s not as big of an issue if you live in an affluent suburb with a decent tax base, but for little rural school districts like those in Appalachia or scattered across Western Kentucky, that can create huge problems.

Places like Wolfe, Clay, and Owsley Counties can’t simply raise property taxes or pull funding out of thin air when Kentucky lawmakers decide to cut back on education spending. And that’s not even the worst part: since each of those places have poverty rates near 40%, we know that their kids are the ones that will suffer the most if funding gets cut.

While conversations on student outcomes rightfully focus on things like classroom instruction and discipline, school funding formulas can play an important role in determining which schools receive which resources. Until we can find a way to stop pitting cash-strapped schools against one another, that matters.

Photo courtesy of Amy Reed, CC-Licensed.

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