The way Daphne Patton remembers it, it was more money than she'd ever seen.
It was 1990, and the Kentucky Supreme Court had declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional. Within a year, a lot more money started flowing to the poorest school districts, a 50 to 60 percent increase in their budgets.
Patton, an elementary school teacher from Wolfe County in eastern Kentucky, says schools had an abundance of resources, "everything we needed."
The ruling forced lawmakers to re-imagine how Kentucky would pay for its schools by mandating that they reduce disparities between rich and poor districts.
"The best of the best things happened for our kids," Patton recalls. "We were able to buy books. We were able to invest in technologies."
More than a third of people in Wolfe County live in poverty, but the district was able to hire more teachers. Patton says that solution is the kind of thing wealthy school districts take for granted. But this is Appalachia, she adds: Here, education is akin to an escape plan from poverty.
Patton hears this from the parents of her fifth-graders all the time: "I want my kids to do better than I did. They need to find a good job."
Patton says parents also want to know how they can help. "But the bottom line is, they can't. I send homework home that parents can't do."
Stories like that were commonplace in a district with literacy and high school graduation rates among the lowest in the country.
And that's what led Wolfe County and 65 other poor districts to file their landmark lawsuit in the mid-1980s.
Before the state's highest court, they argued that they couldn't raise enough money locally to pay for good schools. And that, as long as school funding was unequal and subpar, those literacy and graduation rates would never improve.
"I think Kentucky had a moment when it looked in the mirror and we saw that we were achieving at very low levels," says Brigitte Blom Ramsey. She's head of the Prichard Committee, an influential nonprofit that lobbies for better schools in Kentucky.
She says the court's decision in 1990 — a sweeping victory for Wolfe County and the other districts — changed the education landscape throughout the Bluegrass State.
Lawmakers quickly passed legislation that amounted to a complete overhaul of the K-12 system. And by the mid 1990s, it was paying off. Reading and math scores shot up. More students were graduating and going on to college. A lot more.
"What Kentucky did in 26 years' time," says Blom Ramsey, "was bring itself up from the very bottom of the barrel in education rankings to the middle of the pack and above."
Among the most significant of the changes was a new funding formula that guaranteed a minimum amount of money every district would receive from the state every year.
But a funding gap between rich and poor schools remains in Kentucky, in part because lawmakers did not deal with the fundamental imbalance that comes with a reliance on local property taxes.
In a property-poor district like Wolfe County, for example, a 4 percent increase in property taxes generates no more than $20 per student. The exact same increase in Kentucky's richest district generates more than $450.
So despite all the gains, educators in poor districts still struggle to catch up.
Here's another obstacle: The Legislature has not approved any significant increases in overall school funding since 2008. So, with the state budget flat, the remaining disparities are now frozen in place.
At Campton Elementary School in the southern part of Wolfe County, the social studies textbooks, for example, are more than 12 years old.
"We've got good kids," says Superintendent Kenny Bell, himself a graduate of Wolfe County High School. "The hope comes from their teachers and staff here who touch their lives, but they do have enormous challenges."
Right now he's facing a tough decision: whether to shut down the district's early college academy. Bell says the district doesn't have the $40,000 it needs to keep the program alive.
"I feel like our children are being betrayed," says Bell. Which is exactly what Kentuckians were hearing 26 years ago.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Funding for public schools in the U.S. varies widely from state to state - even from town to town. Often it's the most vulnerable kids who get to get the least amount of money. And today is part of the NPR Ed team's series on school money. We hear from a state that tried to change that. In 1990, Kentucky Supreme Court declared the state's entire school funding system unconstitutional. Legislators had to figure out how to narrow the gap between rich and poor districts. A quarter century later, NPR's Claudio Sanchez has gone back to find out what happened.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Kentucky's poorest school districts got a lot more money - that's what happened - more than teachers had ever seen.
DAPHNE PATTON: We had an abundance of resources and everything that we needed.
SANCHEZ: Daphne Patton has taught in Wolfe County in eastern Kentucky since 1992, right around the time a new funding scheme kicked in and poor school districts saw a 50 to 60 percent increase in their budgets.
PATTON: The best of the best things happened for our kids. We were able to buy books. We were able to invest in technologies. We had staffing.
SANCHEZ: Things that wealthy school districts in Kentucky take for granted, says Patton. But this is Appalachia, where an education is akin to an escape plan from poverty. Patton hears this from the parents of her fifth-graders all the time.
PATTON: I want my kids to do better than I did. They need to find a good job. And they'll say, you know - what can we do to help? The bottom line is they can't. I send homework home that parents can't do.
SANCHEZ: Literacy rates and high school graduation rates here have historically been among the lowest in the nation. This was the reason Wolfe County and 65 other poor school districts sued the commonwealth of Kentucky in the mid-1980s. They argued successfully before the state supreme court that as long as school funding was unequal and inadequate, literacy and graduation rates would never improve.
BRIGITTE BLOM RAMSEY: I think Kentucky had a moment where we looked in the mirror and we saw that we were achieving a very, very low levels.
SANCHEZ: Brigitte Blom Ramsey is with Prichard Committee, an influential group that lobbies for better schools in Kentucky. She says the court's decision led to a major overhaul of the state's K-12 system. By the mid-1990s, students' reading and math scores had shot up. More kids were graduating from high school and going on to college.
BLOM RAMSEY: What Kentucky did in 26 years' time was bring itself up from the very bottom of the barrel in education rankings to the middle of the pack and above.
SANCHEZ: To help pay for it, legislators approved a funding formula that guaranteed a minimum amount of money that every district would receive from the state every year. What this major reset did not do was deal with a fundamental imbalance that the reliance on local property taxes create, which is why a big funding gap between rich and poor school districts in Kentucky still exists.
In a property-poor district like Wolfe County, for example, a 4 percent increase in local property taxes generates no more than $20 per student. The exact same increase in Kentucky's richest district generates over $450 per student. Meanwhile, there's been no significant increase in state funding for schools since 2008, and that's created lots of anxiety in poor communities.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We have a voice. We have a voice.
SANCHEZ: At this school board meeting in Knox County, a poor district in southeastern Kentucky, families are up in arms about all kinds of things, including the board's mismanagement, the superintendent's job, lack of transparency and of course, funding. Many here say the progress schools have made is very much at risk.
JAY NOLAN: Now, instead of dealing with continued advancement in education, we're dealing with political and funding issues in the process.
SANCHEZ: Jay Nolan is publisher and editor of The Mountain Advocate, a regional newspaper that's been reporting on school funding issues for decades. He says poor districts throughout Kentucky are hurting.
NOLAN: Particularly with the coal revenue crashing and 10,000 miners and miner-related families out of work, the values of the properties are falling. Well, the price of educating children goes up. The price of feeding children goes up.
SANCHEZ: Just north of Knox County, the financial stress on families, educators and schools of Wolfe County is also taking a toll.
(SOUNDBITE OF IGNITION CHIME)
SANCHEZ: Campton Elementary looks clean and modern, but looks are deceiving says Superintendent Kenny Bell.
KENNY BELL: Yeah, if you go in and you look at the technology available, that's where you'll see the need. And you know, you'll be able to see the lack of resources in different areas of the building.
SANCHEZ: Social studies textbooks, for example - they're more than 12 years old.
As we walked the halls, Bell points out something else that's startling. A third of Wolfe County's 1,300 students live with someone other than their mother or father because of drugs.
BELL: We've got good kids. And for them to be going through what their parents are going through and - the hope comes from their teachers and their staff here that touch their lives. But they do have enormous challenges.
SANCHEZ: So it's not just that schools are having to do more with less, says Bell. It's feeling helpless when you see the problems these kids are facing outside school. Bell says all he can do is try to survive the next round of budget cuts coming in July.
BELL: Where would we cut? It would be - I really don't know.
SANCHEZ: The worst case scenario - the district's early college academy would have to shut down. Bell says it's not only helping students see themselves in college. It's also helping families break the cycle of poverty. For now, though, Wolfe County does not have the $40,000 it needs to keep the program going. It's discouraging, says Bell.
BELL: I feel like our children are being betrayed.
SANCHEZ: Which is exactly what Kentuckians were hearing 26 years ago. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.