The Future of Public Education

on the 2019 Ballot in

Kentucky, Louisiana, & Mississippi

The Future of Public Education on the 2019 Ballot in Kentucky, Louisiana, & Mississippi

Overview

The governor of a state serves as the state’s chief decisionmaker and is the single elected official who wields the most influence over the state’s policy agenda and priorities over the course of his or her term. A state governor’s priorities are generally determined by a combination of the state’s most immediate needs and opportunities, political pressure, and the governor’s own political ideology and values. While most gubernatorial elections occur on even-numbered years, three southern states are holding governor elections this fall: Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In two of those states – Kentucky and Louisiana – incumbent governors face challengers confident that their vision for their state is stronger and more representative of the state’s needs than that of the incumbent. In one state – Mississippi – the incumbent governor is term limited, opening the door for a new candidate to set the policy vision for Mississippi. In all three states, voters have taken a keen interest in K-12 education and state-based solutions to improve educational outcomes for students.

The Importance

Although 2019’s gubernatorial elections fall between major election years and may spur lower voter turnout as a result, this year’s election results are equally important when compared to others as a determinant for student success and educational equity in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In all three participating states, education policy issues including, but not limited to, school funding, school privatization, student safety, and teacher pay will all be directly impacted by the elected governors’ decisions.

For example, a state’s average teacher salary is also one of a number of issues guided by the governor. While a state’s legislature ultimately determines appropriations for teachers’ salaries, the governor’s decision to prioritize an increase in teachers’ compensation sets in motion legislation to do so. Data from the National Education Association (NEA) show that average teacher salaries in the South still lag behind the nationwide average despite teacher strikes and salary increases in some states. The table below provides a southern snapshot of average teacher salaries by state, with the state highlighted in green (Maryland) having the highest average and the state highlighted in red (Mississippi) having the lowest average.

*SEF analysis of the Rankings of the States 2018 and Estimates of School Statistics 2019 Report, National Education Association; all data is from the 2017-2018 school year. Numbers in parentheses (x) are rankings comparing southern states.

“In the wake of passed and proposed school privatization legislation throughout the South affecting 276,000 students and amounting to $1.6 billion in state funding or public benefits, teacher strikes for higher pay and protected pensions, and the potential for changing underfunded formulas that are unable to account for changing demographics, in many ways the future of public education is on the ballot in 2019.”

Louisiana and Mississippi currently operate school privatization programs, while Kentucky continues to consider the merits of such programs under privatization-friendly leadership. In the wake ofpassed and proposed school privatization legislation throughout the South affecting 276,000 students and amounting to $1.6 billion in state funding or public benefits, teacher strikes for higher pay and protected pensions, and the potential for changing underfunded formulas that are unable to account for changing demographics, in many ways the future of public education is on the ballot in 2019.

The Potential Effects on Education Policy

Each fiscal year, education spending is one of the most significant line items within a state’s budget. In Kentucky and Louisiana, elementary and secondary education alone comprised nearly 25% of each state’s total budget in 2017 [1]. In Mississippi, 22% of the state’s total budget in 2017 was devoted to elementary and secondary education. Adequate education spending not only means fully funding a state’s schools and compensating educators and education professionals appropriately but also guaranteeing equitable resource allocation for students of color and low-income students. A Bellwether Education Partners report found that more than half of K-12 students enrolled in public schools in the South are students of color, and 56 percent of all Black students enrolled in public schools nationwide attend public schools in the South.

Additionally, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Kentucky all have a significantly higher percentage of students who qualify for free lunch than the national average, illuminating the higher levels of student need existent in those states and the prudence in factoring in the ramifications of poverty when crafting education policy.[2]

However, despite higher percentages of students of color and low-income students – groups who, in many cases, require extra support to succeed in school – southern states consistently fail to fully fund public education. Per-pupil spending, an indicator of how adequately a state funds public education, is significantly lower throughout the South than other regions of the United States, and Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi are no exception to this alarming trend. The national average for per-pupil spending is $12,526, yet in 2018, all southern states but one – West Virginia – spent between 3% and 32% below the national average on each student.[3] Kentucky’s per-pupil education spending in 2018 averaged $10,945 per pupil, while Mississippi and Louisiana registered at $9,885 and $12,153, respectively.[4]

The governor of a state plays an instrumental role in laying out a proposal to fully fund education in a way that will provide a quality education to all students in the state, this influential power has the potential of being particularly detrimental or advantageous to students of color and low-income students based on their posture toward equity. While lawmakers and governors in many southern states are focused on cutting taxes, voters in a number of southern states support increasing taxes to amply fund education. A recent NBC News poll done in collaboration with Mississippi Today illustrated that at least 60% of Mississippians would be willing or somewhat willing to pay more taxes to fund education. Similarly, a 2018 Associated Press-NORC poll conducted in the aftermath of teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma found that half of Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes to contribute to salary increases for teachers. In a June 2019 poll, 65% of voters in Hamilton County, Tennessee expressed support for increasing property taxes in order to adequately fund schools. In order to catalyze sustained increases in per-pupil funding in the South and demonstrate a legitimate commitment to educational equity, southern states must elect governors willing to listen to their constituents, committed to fully funding education, and ready to put their respective states on a track toward reversing pervasive historic inequities.

[1] Distribution of State Expenditures (in millions). Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

[2] Robson, Kelly, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, and Justin Trinidad. Education in the American South: Historical Context, Current State, and Future Possibilities. Report. Bellwether Education Partners.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

2019 Governor Races:

Choosing Our Children's Future

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