Kansas schoolchildren shortchanged by Kansas City Star

kansas-city-star-opinion

Another newspaper editorialist ignores the facts about Kansas schools. This is starting to be routine.

In a collection of toasts and roasts, Kansas City Star columnist Steve Rose criticizes Kansas Governor Sam Brownback on a variety of fronts, especially on school funding:

A ROAST to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who led the charge for the most radical and irresponsible tax cuts in the history of Kansas and, perhaps, the entire country. One of the unfortunate victims of these cuts is education, both K-12 and higher education. The damage will be gradual, but it will be felt to be sure. Brownback says he is investing in more jobs. But he is dis-investing in education. What could be more vital to the Kansas economy and attracting businesses than a high quality educational system? (Roasts and toasts suitable for the new year, January 11, 2014)

kansas-school-spending-per-student-2013-10-chart-01

Dis-investing in education.: Nearby is a chart of Kansas school spending. It’s adjusted for inflation. Spending is not as high as it was at its peak, but claims of “slashing” or “dis-investing” don’t apply, either.

Those who claim school spending is inadequate usually cite only base state aid per pupil, which has fallen. But it’s only the starting point for all the other spending. In totality, spending on schools in Kansas is over three times the level of base state aid. Also, comparisons are often made to what the Kansas Supreme Court said base state aid should be to its actual value. But the court doesn’t know how much should be spent on schools.

Those who make claims of cutting schools should note this: Considering the entire state, two trends have emerged. For the past two years, the number of teachers employed in Kansas public schools has risen. Correspondingly, the student-teacher ratio has fallen. The trend for certified employees is a year behind that of teachers, but for the last year, the number of certified employees has risen, and the ratio to pupils has fallen.

Kansas school employment

I’ve created interactive visualizations that let you examine the employment levels and ratios in Kansas school districts.

Kansas school employment ratios

Click here for the visualization of employment levels. Click here for the visualization of ratios (pupil-teacher and pupil-certified employee).

What could be more vital to the Kansas economy and attracting businesses than a high quality educational system? Rose is right. Good schools are vital to our future. If only Kansas had them.

The focus on school spending — that’s all writers like Rose write about — keeps attention away from some unfortunate and unpleasant facts about Kansas schools. Kansas needs to confront these facts for the sake of Kansas schoolchildren. Editorials like this are very harmful to Kansas schoolchildren, because if spending is increased, not much is likely to improve, but the public school establishment and editorialists like Steve Rose will say that everything that’s wrong has been fixed.

Here’s what Kansas needs to confront. Regarding Kansas school performance, we have to confront two unpleasant realities. First, Kansas has set low standards for its schools, compared to other states. Then, when the Kansas Supreme Court ordered more spending in 2005, the state responded by lowering school standards further. Kansas school superintendents defend these standards.

When referring to “strong public school system,” here’s what Kansans need to know. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” Kansas ranks pretty high among the states on this test. It’s important, however, to examine the results from a few different angles to make sure we understand the entire situation. An illustrative video is available here.

Kansas and National NAEP Scores, 2011, by Ethnicity and Race

If we compare Kansas NAEP scores to those of Texas, we have what seems to be four contradictory statements, but each is true.

  • When considering all students: Kansas scores higher than Texas.
  • Hispanic students only: Kansas is roughly equal to Texas.
  • Black students only: Kansas scores below Texas.
  • White students only: Kansas scores below Texas in most cases.

What explains this paradox is that the two states differ greatly in the proportion of students in ethnic groups. In Kansas, 69 percent of students are white. In Texas it’s 33 percent. This large difference in the composition of students is what makes it look like Kansas students perform better on the NAEP than Texas students.

But looking at the scores for ethnic subgroups, which state would you say has the most desirable set of NAEP scores? It’s important to know that aggregated data can mask or hide underlying trends.

Here’s a question for you: Have you heard Kansas school leaders talk about this? Do Steve Rose and the Kansas City Star editorial board know this?


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