Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Big reality check

Kentucky suit: School funding

Almost 15 years after a lawsuit forced sweeping changes and unprecedented funding in Kentucky public education, the same group is suing again for more money.

The lawsuit, filed last week by a group of 164 school districts called The Council for Better Education, says the Kentucky legislature is shirking its court-ordered duty to provide "adequate" funding for schools. According to the logic of this suit, it does not matter whether or not there is enough money in state coffers or whether there are other spending needs. The message to legislators is raise more taxes, legalize gambling, or do whatever else they have to do to guarantee the money.

The lawsuit argues that nine years ago, 48 percent of Kentucky's General Fund went to elementary and secondary education. Now that's down to 41.2 percent. This is because legislators are juggling other demands with rising costs such as Medicaid and prisons.

So unless there's a money tree blooming somewhere that's not yet picked, this debate needs a new direction. It needs the same reality forced on families who wrestle with a budget and can't afford everything.

Certainly, education is important. The spending amounts the lawsuit demands may, indeed, be needed to produce the kind of public education Kentuckians desire. If the legislators decide it's the top priority for Kentucky, then they should put up the money. But that means other pressing state-financed things must get a much smaller share or be cut altogether. A state may declare two or three priorities such as education, Medicaid or courts and prisons. But then all the other things the state pays for - social services, parks, development and much more - must be considered luxuries. And we all know what happens to luxuries when money gets tight.

Preposterous? No. It's a reality check that's overdue for most states. If education becomes the permanent top priority for state dollars, then we can't continue to spend on dozens of other things at the same level. Politicians say this, but it never gets to the action level. Nobody wants their budget or their services cut. Then they're startled or irate when they see higher tax bills and take home less and less in their paychecks.

The school funding lawsuits want a bigger, guaranteed permanent chunk of the state budget. Whatever we choose, or have forced upon us by the courts, it's time to stop pretending we can have it all.

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