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Audit proves school choice may be a money-saver

By JIM WATERS The Bluegrass Institute


The Bluegrass Institute

Be careful what you ask for - especially if you're an insolent and intransigent board member in a wasteful and bloated Kentucky public school district.

Be especially wary if state Auditor Adam Edelen's on the receiving end of that request.

Edelen, whose office arguably produces the most return for taxpayers of any state agency on a surprisingly small budget, just released results of an audit of the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS). It concludes that adult administrators are well taken care of while students and teachers often are left to fend for themselves.

Edelen's year-long audit - performed at the request of the JCPS board - found more than 360 administrators in the system pocket six-figure salaries while many additional non-teaching staffers snag pay in the $80,000 to $100,000 range.

Students, meanwhile, lack access to textbooks, and many far lower-paid teachers dig into their own pockets to provide supplies.

The fact that Kentucky has some of the nation's worst teacher-to-administrator ratios make it a pretty sure bet that JCPS isn't alone in staff bloat.

Another winning bet is that responses from board members and bureaucrats statewide to an audit by Edelen, who is likely to run for governor, of their districts would be similar to that offered by JCPS board member Carol Haddad.

Haddad huffed and puffed about how dreadful it was that the auditor would do what she calls "a political thing."

Considering that Kentucky spends 40 percent - more than $5 billion annually - of its entire General Fund on K-12 education. Edelen's job is to uncover waste and inefficiency in that huge amount of spending.

Exposing problems in school districts statewide - as Edelen has done - is, first and foremost, good policy. And granted, good policy often also is good politics. So what?

Sadly, school-board members like Haddad, already under fire for chronic low performance in Louisville's schools, likely expected Edelen's office to play along by downplaying problems and offering the usual rosy scenario.

But the auditor didn't gloss over the fact that Kentucky's largest school district has more $100,000 administrators than are found in the entire executive branch of Kentucky's state government.

Haddad now yells "politics" when she should say: "Thanks!"

The JCPS funding situation might be somewhat palatable if the district's academic performance was significantly improving. Alas, federal testing shows only about one in three of the district's fourth-graders is proficient in the key academic subjects of reading and math - a ratio that drops to around one in four by the time those students reach eighth grade.

These students could benefit from more school choices - a policy some bitterly resist.

Former Rep. Carl Rollins, who chaired the House Education Committee and was notoriously opposed to charter-school legislation, often made bureaucratic costs the centerpiece of his anti-choice arguments.

"It creates a whole 'nother (sic) level of bureaucracy," Rollins once said on KET's Kentucky Tonight. "Usually the administrators of charter schools are well paid; the teachers are not."

Ironic, isn't it, that Rollins would focus on how well public charter-school leaders allegedly are paid and yet one of the most important state audits ever in Kentucky's history points to the ultra-high cost of a low-performing traditional education bureaucracy that fails way too many children. And it's administrators' pay that's at the heart of the problem.

It's likely that, as former state Rep. Bob Heleringer wrote in a Courier-Journal column about the audit: "Things will never change unless a reform-minded (next) governor and General Assembly empower parents to direct their education tax dollars to the public, private, religious schools of their choice without the assistance of even a single $88,281.19-per-year JCPS 'placement specialist.'"

Could that potential "next governor," who courageously exposed the problem, also lead in the proven solution of bringing parental school choice to a system led by people who think true accountability is "terrible?"

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky's free-market think tank.

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