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Kansas school finance lawsuit reaction

apple-chalkboard-booksFollowing is news coverage and reaction to the Kansas school finance lawsuit Luke Gannon, et al v. State of Kansas.

Press release from Kansas Supreme Court
The court declared certain school funding laws fail to provide equity in public education as required by the Kansas Constitution and returned the case to Shawnee County District Court to enforce the court’s holdings. The court further ordered the three-judge panel that presided over the trial of the case to reconsider whether school funding laws provide adequacy in public education — as also required by the constitution. … The court set a July 1, 2014, deadline to give the Legislature an opportunity to provide for equitable funding for public education. If by then the Legislature fully funds capital outlay state aid and supplemental general state aid as contemplated by present statutes, i.e., without withholding or prorating payments, the panel will not be required to take additional action on those issues. But if the Legislature takes no action by July 1, 2014, or otherwise fails to eliminate the inequity, the panel must take appropriate action to ensure the inequities are cured.

The full opinion

Court Orders Kansas Legislature to Spend More on Schools New York Times
Kansas’s highest court ruled on Friday that funding disparities between school districts violated the state’s Constitution and ordered the Legislature to bridge the gap, setting the stage for a messy budget battle in the capital this year. … Most of the attention in the case, Gannon v. Kansas, had been focused on the trial court’s order to raise base aid per student to $4,492, a 17 percent increase over the current level, to provide an adequate education for all Kansas students. On Friday, the Supreme Court held that the district court had not applied the proper standard to determine what constituted an adequate funding level and asked the lower court to re-examine that issue. “Regardless of the source or amount of funding, total spending is not the touchstone for adequacy in education” under the State Constitution, the decision read.

Kansas must heed court’s call for fairer school funding Kansas City Star.
The Kansas Supreme Court’s school finance ruling Friday cast a bright light on the Legislature’s willful failure to meet its funding obligations to poorer school districts and their students. The state’s duty to promote equity in public education is well established. A previous court ruling ordered legislators to provide payments to districts with low tax bases to help lessen the gap between them and districts that can more easily raise money through property taxes. But in 2010 the Legislature cut off equalization money meant to help poorer districts with capital needs. A year later, lawmakers even amended a statute to excuse themselves from providing money for that purpose through 2017. They also reduced and prorated supplemental payments to help less wealthy districts meet day-to-day needs.

Court declares Kansas’ school funding levels unconstitutional Los Angeles Times
The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s current levels of school funding are unconstitutional, and ordered the Legislature to provide for “equitable funding for education” by July 1. The long-anticipated ruling was a victory for education advocates in the state, but it may be a short-lived one as the Legislature has vowed to defy court orders on the subject. … According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Kansas is spending 16.5% less per student, or $950 per pupil, on education in 2014 than it did in 2008.

Kansas Supreme Court finds inequities in school funding, sends case back to trial court Wichita Eagle
The Kansas Supreme Court found some unfairness — but not necessarily too few dollars — in the state’s funding of schools and sent a mammoth school-finance case back to a lower court for further action. The court found disparities between districts to be unconstitutional and set a July 1 deadline for lawmakers to address that. But it stopped short of saying the state is putting too few dollars in the pot, leaving that issue for another day. … Both school advocates and Republican lawmakers declared partial victory in the wake of the ruling in the lawsuit brought by the Wichita school district and others against the state. But they offered strikingly different interpretations of the decision.

Kansas Supreme Court on school finance: A summary of the ruling Lawrence Journal-World

Court decision gives little clarity on adequacy of K-12 funding Topeka Capital-Journal
Plaintiffs and interested third parties articulated different interpretations of Friday’s school finance ruling, with some saying it is a call for more K-12 funds and conservative groups saying there is no rush.

KS Supreme Court: Legislators made ‘unconstitutional’ school funding choices Kansas Watchdog
In a long-awaited decision, the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday ruled that state lawmakers created “unconstitutional” and “unreasonable wealth-based disparities” by withholding certain state aid payments to public schools. … While the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court decision regarding the state’s failure to equitably disburse capital outlay and supplemental general payments to Sunflower State schools, it stopped short of issuing a decree for specific funding to meet the Legislature’s constitutional requirement to provide an “adequate” education.

Governor Sam Brownback and legislative leadership outline opportunity for progress following Kansas Supreme Court Ruling on Education Funding (full press release)
Today Governor Sam Brownback, joined by Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ray Merrick and other legislators responded to the Kansas Supreme Court ruling on the Gannon vs Kansas case. “We have an opportunity for progress,” Governor Brownback said. “My commitment is to work with legislative leadership to address the allocation issue identified by the court. We will fix this.” The court has set out steps for the legislature to end the lawsuit by July 1, 2014. It affirms the Constitutional requirement for education to be “adequate” and “equitable.” “Our task is to come to resolution on capital outlay funding and local option budgets before July 1,” said Senate President Wagle. “We now have some clarity as we work toward resolution of issues that began years ago under prior administrations.”

Davis comments on Gannon ruling
The court today made it clear that the state has not met its obligation to fund Kansas schools in equitable way. It is time to set it right and fund our classrooms.

Kansas Policy Institute
Statement from Dave Trabert, the president of Kansas Policy Institute, in response to Gannon v. State of Kansas:
“We’re encouraged that the Court ruled that total spending cannot be used to measure adequacy. This is especially important because spending is currently based on deliberately-inflated numbers in the old Augenblick & Myers report. To this day, no one knows what it costs for schools to achieve required outcomes while also making efficient use of taxpayer money. “The next step in helping each student succeed while acting responsibly with taxpayer money is to model a K-12 Finance Commission on the KPERS Study Commission. The Legislature and Governor Brownback should determine what schools need to achieve required outcomes while organized and operating in a cost-effective manner, including appropriate equity measures, and fund schools accordingly.”

Americans for Prosperity-Kansas
The Kansas chapter of the grassroots group Americans for Prosperity released the following statement in response to the Kansas Supreme Court’s school finance decision handed down today:
“For years, those demanding more education spending have ignored anything other than the base state aid per pupil which is only part of overall education funding,” said AFP-Kansas State Director Jeff Glendening. “We are pleased that the Supreme Court has specifically directed that ‘funds from all available resources, including grants and federal assistance, should be considered,’ and that ‘total spending is not the touchstone for adequacy.’
“In light of the Court’s ruling that ‘adequacy’ of education is determined by student outcomes rather than spending, and adopted standards similar to those adopted by the legislature in 2005, now is the time to consider how we are spending education dollars.
“Kansans are spending more than an average of $12,700 per student, and K-12 education currently makes up more than half of our state budget. Despite that, less than 60 percent of education dollars actually make it into the classroom. To meet the educational standards set out by the Legislature and Supreme Court, and give every Kansas child the opportunity they deserve, we must do better.
“We know that the discussion of school finance is not over, and will continue to play out in the courts as the Supreme Court sent the issue of ‘adequacy’ back to the District Court. It’s our hope that the lower court will carefully look at student outcomes and local spending decisions, rather than automatically demanding more state spending, and recognize its role in the constitutionally-defined separation of powers.”

Kansas National Education Association
We are disappointed that today’s announcement by the Kansas State Supreme Court prolongs a resolution of the school finance issue. It didn’t deal directly with the current critical need in Kansas public schools. Together, the citizens of Kansas made sacrifices at a time when the state and national economy were in crisis. During that time Kansans came together and dealt with staggering cuts to education, believing the promise of full restoration to public school funding once the state economy had rebounded.

Kansas Supreme Court rules in school finance case Kansas Health Institute
Kansas’ top court today released its long-awaited decision in the school finance case and while the ruling settled little for now, both sides in the litigation said they found things to like about it.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office defended the state in Gannon v. State of Kansas, said he didn’t believe the mixed decision would necessarily require the Legislature to spend more on K-12 schools, though that would be one option for making the state’s school finance formula constitutional again. … But representatives of the school districts that took to court claiming state aid dollars have been unequal and inadequate said they felt confident they would win the remainder of their points at retrial and that the Legislature would need to authorize an added $129 million in K-12 spending by July 1 to meet the standards spelled out in the unanimous decision. “We are not concerned about this. All of our proof at trial was presented using the correct standard that the court now directs to be used,” at retrial, said John Robb an attorney for the four public school districts that sued the state.

Kansas Supreme Court issues ruling on school finance Wichita Public Schools
The Kansas Supreme Court issued its ruling on the school finance lawsuit on March 7. It upholds the concept that the legislature must adequately fund schools in Kansas and that the funding must be distributed equitably. It requires the Kansas Legislature to fund capital outlay and Local Option Budget equalization by July 1, 2014. That means immediate increases in some state funding for education. … “Overall, we think this is a great ruling for Wichita and Kansas kids,” said Lynn Rogers, BOE member. “It upholds the concept that the State of Kansas is responsible for adequately and equitably funding our students’ education.” Rogers said that the lawsuit is for all Kansas students and that they deserve a quality education regardless of where they live in the state. “The education we provide is the foundation for our workforce and the future of Kansas,” said Superintendent John Allison. “If we don’t give our students a quality education now, we will pay for it in the future.”

More evidence of low Kansas school standards

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A study of school testing standards has found that Kansas has low standards compared to other states.

Kansas ranked forty-fourth among the states, meaning that seven states had standards judged to be weaker than Kansas’. The remainder of the states and the District of Columbia have stronger standards.

The study also found that the Kansas standards have become weaker in recent years.

The research was published by Education Next, a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. It may be read at Despite Common Core, States Still Lack Common Standards: Students proficient on state tests but not national.

It’s important to note that this survey compares a state’s own standards to the NAEP test, which is the same for the entire country. It does not measure the performance of the students. Instead, it serves to compare the strength — and honesty — of a state’s test against a common standard:

Note that an A or a B does not indicate a relatively high performance by students in the state. Rather, it indicates that the state’s definition of proficient embodies higher expectations for students. It is best thought of as a high grade for “truth in advertising,” telling citizens frankly how well students are performing on an internationally accepted scale, just as states have pledged to do by joining the CCSS consortium.

The low ranking of Kansas does not come as a surprise. A few voices in Kansas have been raising concern about standards in Kansas, as in my articles Kansas school standards and other states and Kansas has lowered its school standards. Kansas Policy Institute has contributed a policy analysis titled Removing Barriers to Better Public Education: Analyzing the facts about student achievement and school spending.

Recently The Economist reported this in its article Raising the bar: A battle over school standards:

Here’s a multiple-choice question: if the federal government penalises states where pupils do badly in school, but lets the states themselves set the pass mark, will the states a) make the tests harder; or b) dumb them down?

Historically, the answer has been b). The National Centre for Educational Statistics (NCES), a federal body, looked at how the states’ definitions of “proficiency” at maths and reading compared with its own rigorous one. For grade 4 reading in 2009, not one state held its pupils to as high a standard (see map). Fifteen states labelled a child “proficient” when the NCES would have called her skills “basic”; 35 bestowed that honour on children performing at “below basic” level.

Despite this evidence, the Kansas public school establishment says something different. Here’s what a group of Kansas school district superintendents, including Wichita’s John Allison, wrote last year in a newspaper op-ed: “Historically, our state has had high-performing schools, which make Kansas a great place to live, raise a family and run a business.”

This claim of “high-performing schools” is based on, as multiple sources have shown, standards that are among the weakest in the nation, and standards that have declined.

Two years ago Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane M. DeBacker penned an op-ed that claimed rising student achievement: “One of the remarkable stories in Kansas education is student achievement. For 10 years straight, Kansas public school students have shown improvement on state reading and math assessments.”

As we now know, the tests that DeBacker relies upon are among the weakest in the nation. Under her tenure as commissioner, these standards have become weaker.

It would be one thing for the Kansas public school spending establishment to mislead Kansas voters and taxpayers about the strength of Kansas school standards. That’s bad enough, assuming that these education leaders are aware of this information. (If they’re not aware, that’s an entirely different problem.)

But when Kansans are given a false impression of the performance of Kansas schools, it’s the children that are harmed most.

Wichita has school choice, they say

Wichita public schools apple logo

Writing in the Sunday Wichita Eagle, USD 259 (Wichita public school district) superintendent John Allison told Wichitans something they probably didn’t know: Parents of Wichita schoolchildren benefit from the district’s school choice program:

First, investment in the Wichita public schools allows for remarkable parental choice. Much has been discussed recently about the choice we must give families in order to meet the needs of their children. In Wichita, we are proud that for more than 20 years, families have been offered choice through our district’s magnet school program.

Nearly 30 percent of our schools have a unique magnet focus, enabling students from across our community to consider robust options ranging from science to art, public service to environmental stewardship. Thousands of parents make the decision every year to become part of this rich magnet school tradition, which has helped the Wichita public schools remain a vibrant and diverse school district that has grown by more than 1,500 students in the last 10 years.

I don’t see how Allison believes that magnet schools are equivalent to “remarkable parental choice.” Generally, school choice refers to actual choice programs where parents might choose the regular public school, or perhaps a charter school, or perhaps a private school with its cost paid fully or partially through vouchers or tax credit scholarships. Sometimes school choice programs allow students to enroll in public schools in neighboring school districts.

Wichita and Kansas have none of these programs. (Actually, Kansas does have charter schools, but the law is so weak that there are very few of these schools.) Wichita’s magnet schools are part of the government school system. This means they benefit from taxpayer funding, which is over $12,500 per student per year.

But it also means that these schools suffer all the pathologies that afflict the public school system. That’s not much of a choice.

Citizens generally misinformed on Kansas school spending

When asked about the level of spending on public schools in Kansas, citizens are generally uninformed or misinformed. They also incorrectly thought that spending has declined in recent years.

These are some of the findings of a survey commissioned by Kansas Policy Institute and conducted by SurveyUSA, a national opinion research firm.

In a press release, KPI president Dave Trabert said “As Kansans consider how to deal with the potential fallout from another school lawsuit, pressure to expand Medicaid, ballooning pension deficits and concerns about rising property taxes, we wanted to check again to see how perceptions of the facts influences opinions. Good information is essential to informed opinions and it is clear that when given the facts, Kansans offer much different responses than what is typically reported from overly-simplistic public surveys.”

Here’s the first question of the survey, asking about Kansas state spending on schools: “How much state funding do you think Kansas school districts currently receive per pupil each year from JUST the state of Kansas? Less than $4,000 per pupil? Between $4,000 and $5,000? Between $5,000 and $6,000? Or more than $6,000 per pupil?”

The correct answer is the last category, according to Kansas State Department of Education. State spending on Kansas schools, on a per-pupil basis, is $6,984 for the most recent school year. That’s total state-funded spending of $3,184,163,559 divided by 456,000.50 full time equivalent students. 13 percent of survey respondents chose the correct category. 44 percent thought the correct answer was less than $4,000.

To get a reading about respondents’ level of knowledge regarding total school spending, the survey asked “How much funding per pupil do you think Kansas school districts currently receive from ALL taxpayer sources per year, including State, Federal and Local taxpayers? Less than $6,000 per pupil? Between $6,000 and $9,000? Between $9,000 and $12,000? Or more than $12,000 per pupil?”

According to KSDE, the spending per pupil from all sources of funding is $12,656. On the survey, seven percent chose the correct category. 39 percent thought the answer was less than $6,000, which is less than half the actual spending.

What the trend in school spending? The survey asked: “Over the last 5 years, do you think per-pupil school district funding from the State, Federal Government and local property taxes has gone down by more than 10%? Has remained about the same? Has gone up by less than 5%? Or has gone up by about 10%?”

Here are the figures: For 2011-2012, spending per pupil was $12,656. Five years ago, the 2006-2007 school year, spending was $11,558. That’s 9.5 percent. Only 15 percent chose the correct answer, “up by about 10%.” Fully 61 percent thought spending had declined.

The level of knowledge revealed in this survey is not a surprise. In 2010 KPI commissioned a survey that asked similar questions, with similar results.

A national survey, Is the Price Right? Probing American’s knowledge of school spending, a 2007 project produced by EducationNext, a project of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, produced similar results:

How well informed is the public about these financial commitments? Not very. Among those asked without the prompt listing possible expenses, the median response was $2,000, or less than 20 percent of the true amount being spent in their districts. Over 90 percent of the public offered an amount less than the amount actually spent in their district, and more than 40 percent of the sample claimed that annual spending was $1,000 per pupil or less. The average estimate of $4,231 reflects the influence of a small percentage of individuals who offered extremely high figures. Even so, the average respondent’s estimate was just 42 percent of actual spending levels in their district.

Why the low level of correct information?

Given that citizens have a consistent record of underestimating the amount spend on schools, we might ask why. There are several answers.

First, school officials lie to the public. That’s unfortunate, but there’s no other way to characterize comparisons between their statements and the facts.

In July, a Wichita Eagle news story quoted John Allison, superintendent of USD 259, the Wichita public school district thusly: “We’re still at 2001 funding levels. If only our costs were at 2001.”

In March, Wichita school board member Connie Dietz wrote in an Eagle op-ed: “But what neither I nor any of my fellow board members planned on was building a fiscal year 2012 budget based on 1999 funding levels.”

Looking at the facts, these claims are demonstrably false. Considering Allison’s claim specifically: From the 2001-2002 school year to the 2011-2012 year, spending per pupil from state sources increased from $4,812 to $7,501, an increase of 55.8 percent. Spending per pupil from all sources grew from $8,393 to $12,734, an increase of 51.7 percent.

During the same time, the Consumer Price Index, the primary measure of inflation, rose about 27 percent, about half the rate that Wichita school spending increased.

I don’t know why these school leaders makes these claims that are so divergent from the facts. I do know, however, that our opinion leaders aren’t doing any better. A Lawrence Journal-World editorial that was repeated in the Wichita Eagle made several claims about Kansas schools that don’t hold up under scrutiny. The editorial made this claim: “In the last four years, per-pupil state funding for public schools has declined by about 14 percent, from $4,400 per student to $3,780. Districts have cut the fat in their budgets and then some. It’s time to correct this dangerous trend.”

This statement about “base state aid per pupil” is true. But using only that figure to describe spending on schools in Kansas is disingenuous. It hides facts that are contrary.

School spending advocates present base state aid per pupil as the primary benchmark or indicator of school spending, despite the fact that it is only part of the Kansas school spending formula and disguises the overall level of spending.

Specifically, base state aid per pupil for the last school year was $3,780. But the state spent an average of $6,983 per pupil that year, which is an additional $3,203 or 84.7 percent more than base state aid. Overall spending from all sources was $12,656 per pupil. Both of the latter numbers are higher than the previous year.

As can be seen in the chart, base state aid has declined, but total state spending has increased.

Why do school spending supporters focus only on base state aid? Its decline provides the grain of truth for their larger and false argument about school spending. As explained in Kansas school spending: the deception this grain of truth enables school spending advocates like Mark Desetti (Director of Legislative and Political Advocacy at Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union) to be accurate and deceptive, all at the same time.

Finally, people want schools and students to succeed. Our future depends on it. A good education is a valuable investment. So there’s a built-in bias in favor of schools, and school spending advocates use this to their advantage. Anyone who simply brings attention to the facts — not to mention criticism — is blasted as “anti-education” or “anti-child.”

People are shocked when they learn the level of spending by schools. When they — either through their own observations or measures of student achievement — compare that spending to the product produced by public schools, citizens become truly alarmed — and they should be.

Base state aid compared to Kansas state spending and total spending. State and total spending has risen even though base state aid is mostly flat.

Kansas reasonable: The education candidates

As the Kansas primary election nears, candidates vie to see who is the “education candidate.” It’s part of the theme of the so-called “moderate” Republicans — that they follow a tradition of “reasonableness” that, they say, is characteristic of successful Kansas politicians — the “traditional” Republicans.

Others call for a “balanced” approach to government and “responsible tax reform.” Senate President Steve Morris contributes an op-ed in support of “incumbent senators who put their local communities above the agendas of these special interest groups.”

But when we look at Kansas schools, we find that most of the debate centers on school funding, with some candidates forecasting that public schools will be “devastated” as a result of recent Kansas tax reform.

Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), the state’s teachers union, is a large player in determining who are the “education candidates.” But when examined closely, anyone can see that the union’s concern is money and teachers, not the schoolchildren of Kansas. KNEA is precisely the type of special interest group that Morris warns against, but Morris and the Republicans branding themselves as “reasonable” aren’t able to see that.

An example of how KNEA functions as a special interest group is its public relations campaign titled “Behind Every Great Student is a Great Public School Teacher.” But what about the great Kansas students who go to private or church schools, or who are homeschooled? The answer is that KNEA cares nothing about these students, as they are taught by teachers who aren’t union members.

A look at KNEA endorsements tells us that the union endorses and supports candidates who will increase spending on schools while at the same time blocking accountability measures and spreading misinformation about Kansas school spending and student achievement. When we consider the effects on Kansas schoolchildren, we start to realize the impact of this special interest group and the politicians and bureaucrats that enable it.

Kansas school spending

The union’s raison d’etre is to increase spending of tax dollars on public schools, insisting that there have been huge cuts in school funding that will lead to diminished student achievement. Kansas school district spending, however, has been rising rapidly for decades. From 1997 to 2010, for example, after accounting for inflation, Kansas state spending per pupil on schools increased by 18 percent. When all sources of funding are included, spending per pupil was up by 32 percent, again after inflation is taken into consideration.

If more money is the answer, the problem would have been solved long ago.

KNEA and many of the purported education candidates won’t even admit to the amount of spending on schools in Kansas. Their focus is on base state aid per pupil, which has declined in recent years. But that’s just part of the spectrum of total spending on schools, and the total has been increasing. The focus solely on base state aid is misleading — a statistical accident that is convenient for KNEA lobbyist Mark Desetti and school spending boosters. It lets them present a picture of Kansas school spending that is accurate but deceptive, both at the same time. Other school leaders like Wichita superintendent John Allison do the same.

Voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates why it is so difficult to recognize the entirety of public school spending.

Kansas student achievement

The education candidates promote the success of Kansas public schools. Scores on Kansas tests are rising — “jumping,” in the recent words of Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker. But scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for Kansas students don’t reflect the same trend. Scores on this test, which is given every two years, aren’t rising like the Kansas-controlled test scores.

Voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates why we don’t have an accurate state assessment of students.

Kansas “education candidates” will point to Kansas’ overall high scores on the NAEP. It’s true: Looking at the gross scores, Kansas does well, compared to other states. But you don’t have to look very hard to realize that these scores are a statistical accident. It’s an unfortunate fact that minority students do not perform as well on these tests as white students. When you combine this with the fact that Kansas has a relatively small minority population, we can see why Kansas ranks well.

Compare Kansas with Texas, a state that Kansas school spending boosters like to deride as a state with low-performing schools. In Kansas 69 percent of students are white, while in Texas that number is 33 percent. So it’s not surprising that overall, Kansas outperforms Texas (with one tie) when considering all students in four important areas: fourth and eighth grade reading, and fourth and eighth grade math.

But looking at Hispanic students only, Texas beats or ties Kansas in these four areas. For black students, Texas bests Kansas in all four. Texas does this with much less spending per pupil than Kansas.

Kansas voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates if they are aware of these facts.

Kansas school accountability

The Kansas teachers union its stable of education candidates have also been successful in shielding teachers from meaningful evaluation and accountability for on-the-job performance. As part of the waiver from the No Child Left Behind ACT that Kansas recently received, evaluations of teachers will be changing. The Kansas State Department of Education announced: “Another key component of the state’s waiver is related to evaluating teachers and school leaders. Among the criteria for achieving a waiver request was implementing an evaluation system that includes student achievement as a significant factor in the evaluation. The Kansas plan calls for appointing a commission to identify the most effective means of tying student achievement to teacher and leader evaluations and building that into the existing Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol (KEEP).”

KEEP is an evaluation system that was first used in the last school year on a pilot basis. But according to Peter Hancock of Kansas Education Policy Report, KEEP does not currently have a component that includes student achievement.

Many people would be surprised to learn that student achievement has not been the primary factor used in evaluating teachers in Kansas. This is one of the reasons why Kansas has been found to rank low in policies on teacher quality.

Again, voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates why student achievement has not been a component of teacher evaluation.

Kansas school standards

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has analyzed state standards. The table of figures is available at Estimated NAEP scale equivalent scores for state proficiency standards, for reading and mathematics in 2009, by grade and state.

The conclusion by NCES is “… most states’ proficiency standards are at or below NAEP’s definition of Basic performance.” An analysis of the NCES data found that Kansas is one of those states, with its reading proficiency standard set lower than what the U.S. Department of Education considers basic performance. Math proficiency levels are above what NAEP considers to be basic but still well below the U.S. standard for proficient.

Voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates if they are aware of this poor showing by Kansas, and if so, why have they allowed it to persist.

There’s more: Opposing charter schools and school choice, opposition to improving teacher quality policies, insisting that schools fund balances can’t be used, insisting on lockstep salary scales that pay teachers more for things that don’t help students, opposing merit pay, opposing alternative certification — these are all hallmark of teachers unions and, generally speaking, the candidates they support.

Kansas schoolchildren need school reform. KNEA — the teachers union — and the candidates it supports are there to block every reform. Ask yourself: Who are the education candidates?

Wichita school spending

Talking about Wichita school funding this week, district superintendent John Allison was quoted in Wichita Eagle reporting as saying “We’re still at 2001 funding levels.” This claim is part of an ongoing campaign of misinformation spread by school spending advocates in Wichita and across Kansas.

Mr. Allison may have been referring to a component of the Kansas school finance formula called base state aid per pupil. It has been cut, as shown in this chart that the Kansas school spending establishment uses.

Kansas school spending, as presented by the Wichita public school district.

But base state aid is only the starting point. When we look closely at all spending by USD 259, the Wichita public school district, we see a picture vastly different from that described by the Wichita superintendent.

Considering all sources of funding, the Wichita school district has been able to spend more money each year for many years, despite the claims of cuts. What cuts have been made to base state aid per pupil have been more than compensated for by weighted state aid, federal aid, and local aid, as shown in the following chart.

Wichita school spending, as reported by Kansas State Department of Education.

Focusing on base state aid misses the larger picture. As an example, for the 2010-2011 school year, base state aid was $3,937. Yet the Wichita school district received $7,092 per pupil from the state, 80 percent more than the base aid number. Focusing only on base state aid per pupil also fails to recognize the federal and local sources of revenue to schools. For this year the Wichita district received $2,123 per pupil from the federal government and $3,855 per pupil from local taxpayers, for a total of $13,069 per pupil. The same figure for the previous year was $12,526.

There are also other issues to consider when analyzing Kansas base state aid per pupil spending. Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute wrote this is response to Allison’s statement:

Superintendents sometimes talk about base state aid as though it was total aid, so let’s take a look at those facts. Kansas State Department of Education broke out the components of state aid back to 1997, when total state aid was $4,047 per pupil (base was $3,670, KPERS was $157, bond was $42 and all other aid was $178). Back in the days before a lot of weightings were added/expanded, districts had to cover At Risk and other weighting-funding costs out of the base.

State aid in 2012 was estimated by KSDE to be $6,931 per-pupil … base was $3,780 … KPERS was $804 … bond was $230 … and all other aid was $2,116. More than a ten-fold increase in other state aid, most of which is in those weightings that formerly had to come out of the base.

By the way, KSDE says 2012 was estimated to be a record-setting spending year.

More information about the changing nature of base state aid is at Base state aid is wrong focus for Kansas school spending.

Why do school spending supporters focus only on base state aid? Its decline provides the grain of truth for their larger and false argument about school spending. As explained in Kansas school spending: the deception this grain of truth enables school spending advocates like Mark Desetti (Director of Legislative and Political Advocacy at Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union) to be accurate and deceptive, all at the same time.

We ought to demand more truth from school districts and school officials regarding school finance.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Monday May 23, 2011

Wichita City council. As it is the fourth Tuesday of the month, the Wichita City Council handles only consent agenda items. The council will also hold a workshop. Consent agendas are usually reserved for items thought to be of non-controversial nature. Today’s Wichita Eagle spotlights one item where the city is proposing to hire an outside firm to inspect the roof of the airport for damage from last September’s storm. Some, including Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) wonder why the city can’t do the inspection with it’s own engineering staff and resources. … Of further note is that the city proposes to use general obligation bonds to borrow the funds to pay for this inspection. This is similar to last December, when the city decided to also use bonds to borrow money to pay for an analysis of nine aging fire stations and what repairs and upgrades they might require. While borrowing to pay for long-term capital projects is fine, this is borrowing for thinking about long-term projects. … The workshop will cover Century II parking meters, something involving the North Industrial Corridor, and a presentation on next year’s budget. The detailed agenda packet is at Wichita City Council May 24, 2011. No similar information is available for the workshop topics. … Next week is the fifth Tuesday of a month and the day after a holiday, so there’s two reasons to explain why there won’t be a city council meeting next week.

Sedgwick County Commission. In its Wednesday meeting, the Sedgwick County Commission will consider approval of the county’s portion of the Hawker Beechcraft deal. In order to persuade Hawker to stay in Kansas rather than move to Louisiana, the State of Kansas offered $40 million in various form of incentive and subsidy, and it was proposed at the time that the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County each add $2.5 million. Last week the Wichita City Council approved its share, which can only be described as corporate welfare. It was widely reported that Hawker had received an offer, said by some to be worth as much as $400 million, to move to Louisiana. But that offer was not a valid threat of Hawker leaving Kansas, as in a December 2010 television news report, Louisiana’s governor said “they couldn’t guarantee the number of jobs that would have been required for them to come here.” … The meeting agenda is at Sedgwick County Commission, May 25, 2011.

Kobach on voter reform in Wall Street Journal. Today’s Wall Street Journal opinion section carries a piece by Kris W. Kobach, who is Kansas Secretary of State. The title is The Case for Voter ID: You can’t cash a check, board a plane, or even buy full-strength Sudafed over the counter without ID. Why should voting be different? In it, Kobach writes Kansas is the only state with all of these elements of voter ID reform: “(1) a requirement that voters present photo IDs when they vote in person; (2) a requirement that absentee voters present a full driver’s license number and have their signatures verified; and (3) a proof of citizenship requirement for all newly registered voters.” In support of the need for these reforms, Kobach provides evidence of the prevalence of election fraud. He also cites evidence that there is already widespread possession of the documents necessary to vote: “According to the 2010 census, there are 2,126,179 Kansans of voting age. According to the Kansas Department of Motor Vehicles, 2,156,446 Kansans already have a driver’s license or a non-driver ID. In other words, there are more photo IDs in circulation than there are eligible voters. The notion that there are hundreds of thousands of voters in Kansas (or any other state) without photo IDs is a myth.” … Some critics of these reforms fear that they will suppress voter turnout, and primarily that of Democratic Party voters. Kobach counters: “If election security laws really were part of a Republican scheme to suppress Democratic votes, one would expect Democrats to fight such laws, tooth and nail. That didn’t happen in Kansas, where two-thirds of the Democrats in the House and three-fourths of the Democrats in the Senate voted in favor of the Secure and Fair Elections Act. They did so because they realize that fair elections protect every voter and every party equally. No candidate, Republican or Democrat, wants to emerge from an election with voters suspecting that he didn’t really win. Election security measures like the one in my state give confidence to voters and candidates alike that the system is fair.” … The bill is HB 2067, and is the easiest way to understand it is by reading the supplemental note.

Tiahrt, former Congressman, to address Pachyderms. This week the Wichita Pachyderm Club features Todd Tiahrt, Former Congressman for the fourth district of Kansas, speaking on the topic “Outsourcing Our National Security — How the Pentagon is Working Against Us.” I suspect the prolonged decision process of selecting where the build the Air Force refueling tanker will be a topic. After the Pentagon awarded to contract to AirBus in 2008, which Boeing protested, the Wall Street Journal wrote: “The Pentagon’s job is to defend the country, which means letting contracts that best serve American soldiers and taxpayers, not certain companies. Defense Department rules explicitly state that jobs cannot be a factor in procurement and that companies from certain countries, including France, must be treated as if they are U.S. firms in contract bids. Such competition ensures that taxpayers get the best value for their money and soldiers get the best technology.” More on this decision is here. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club.

Wichita speaker lineup set. The schedule of speakers for the Wichita Pachyderm Club for the next several weeks is set, and as usual, it looks to be an interesting set of programs. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend Wichita Pachyderm meetings. For more information click on Wichita Pachyderm Club. Upcoming speakers are: On June 3, Nola Tedesco Foulston, District Attorney, Eighteenth Judicial District of Kansas, speaking on “An office overview and current events at the Eighteenth Judicial District of Kansas District Attorney’s office.” On June 10, John Allison, Superintendent of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, on “An update from USD 259.” On June 17, The Honorable Lawton R. Nuss, Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice on “The State of the Kansas Courts.” On June 24, Jim Mason, Naturalist at the Great Plains Nature Center will have a presentation and book signing. Mason is author of Wichita’s Riverside Parks, published in April 2011. On July 1, Jay M. Price, Director of the Public History Program at Wichita State University, speaking on “Classes of Values in Kansas History.” On July 8, Dave Trabert, President, Kansas Policy Institute, on “Stabilizing the Kansas Budget.”

Blue Ribbon Commission coming to Wichita. “Local residents will have an opportunity to voice concerns and offer suggestions on how to improve the state’s court systems during two public meetings next week in Wichita. A panel from the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC), which was appointed by the Kansas Supreme Court to review the state’s court systems, will listen to public comments during the meetings at 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm, Thursday, May 26, 2011 at Century II, in Room 101, in Wichita. The BRC will examine ways to assure proper access to justice, the number of court locations, services provided in each location, hours of operation, the use of technology, possible cost reductions, and flexibility in the use of court personnel and other resources, and any other topic that may lead to the more efficient operation of our courts.” For more information, see the Blue Ribbon Commission Website.

School choice cast as civil rights issue. Star Parker, after citing the case of a homeless mother who falsified an address so her child could get into a good school: “Public school reality today for black kids is one that overwhelmingly keeps them incarcerated in failing, dangerous schools. It’s evidence of the indomitable human spirit that, despite horrible circumstances, many poor unmarried black mothers understand the importance of getting their child educated and will do whatever it takes to get their kid into a decent school. … But let’s not forget the bigger picture that the NAACP has consistently opposed school choice and voucher initiatives and has been a stalwart defender of the public school system that traps these kids and prohibits the freedom and flexibility that these mothers seek. … Generally, black establishment politicians and organizations such as the NAACP have defended government public schools and education status quo and sadly have hurt their own communities. Nothing contributes more to the growing income gaps in the country than disparities in education, and the impact continues to grow.” … A common choice of allowing widespread school choice is that poor and uneducated parents aren’t capable of making wise selections of schools for their children.

Medicare reform necessary. Wall Street Journal in Republicans and Mediscare: Paul Ryan’s GOP critics are ObamaCare’s best friends: “With ObamaCare, Democrats offered their vision for Medicare cost control: A 15-member unelected board with vast powers to set prices for doctors, hospitals and other providers, and to regulate how they should be organized and what government will pay for. The liberal conceit is that their technocratic wizardry will make health care more rational, but this is faith-based government. The liberal fallback is political rationing of care, which is why Mr. Obama made it so difficult for Congress to change that 15-member board’s decisions. Republicans have staunchly opposed this agenda, but until Mr. Ryan’s budget they hadn’t answered the White House with a competing idea. Mr. Ryan’s proposal is the most important free-market reform in years because it expands the policy options for rethinking the entitlement state.” The unelected board referred to is the Independent Payment Advisory Board. With its mission to reduce spending, some have aid this board is the feared “death panel.”

Science, public agencies, and politics. Cato Institute Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels explains the reality of cap-and-trade proposals in this ten minute video. If the Waxman-Markey bill was implemented, world temperature would be reduced by 0.04 degrees. That compares to a forecast increase of 1.584 degrees. If implemented worldwide by the Kyoto nations, the reduction would be 0.08 degrees worldwide. … Michaels says the growth in emissions by China eclipses anything we in America can do. … Michaels echos Dwight Esienhower’s warning that “we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations and the power of money is ever present — and is gravely to be regarded.” He goes on to explain some of the dangers of “public choice science.”

Wichita school chief makes plea to Wichita-area legislators

This afternoon, Wichita school superintendent John Allison appeared before the South-central Kansas legislative delegation, explaining Kansas school finance as it applies to the Wichita school district, and offering justification for deciding to join the lawsuit demanding the state spend more on schools.

Referring to base state aid per pupil, which has been cut several times in the past year for a total of 9.5 percent (depending on who’s doing the arithmetic), Allison said that base aid is the funding with which the district funds regular education, and the represents funds with which the district has the greatest latitude. Other funds are restricted, and have fewer options.

He said that unlike many businesses, the school district hasn’t lost customers during the recession, and in fact, enrollment is high now. At the same time, production standards increase each year (due to the No Child Left Behind law), and doesn’t vary because of budgetary reasons.

Allison cited the rapid growth in math and reading scores on the Kansas assessment tests, and rising graduation rates. He said that efforts are paying dividends in achievement.

An important measure to the Wichita district, he said, is the weighting for special populations. These weightings provide additional funding over base state aid. Weighting factors include non-English speaking students, and students coming from poor families. Allison said that the wealthier districts in the eastern part of Kansas may contest these weightings, but he said there is a “marked difference” in educating in an urban situation versus a suburban situation, and this funding is important.

Allison said that making further progress “comes down to dollars.”

He said the district is pursuing efficiency measures in purchasing, including cooperation with other school districts. Storage of large quantities is sometimes a problem.

He asked that the legislature allow school districts to use a “request for proposal” procedure, instead of the current practice, where schools have to “craft a solution” before asking for bids. The selection of a vendor to install turf on Wichita school football fields last spring was an example where the RFP process was used, but found to be unlawful.

On the issue of fund balances, Allison said that almost all are restricted funds, mentioning the contingency fund as one that could be used, but the fund’s balance would not even meet district payroll for one month. The Kansas Policy Institute has produced research demonstrating that Kansas schools have $700 million in funds that could be used to make it through a tight fiscal situation, with Kansas Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis agreeing.

Regarding the board’s decision on Monday to join the attempt to reopen the Montoy case (the Kansas school funding lawsuit) in an effort to force the state to increase funding, Allison claimed the decision was not made easily. He said it is not a “sudden, magic solution” to the finance issue, and that legislators have to balance funding needs of the state, while keeping Kansas as a viable state for business growth. He mentioned examples of various units of government suing other government.

Representative Steve Huebert, a Republican from Valley Center asked questions about the wisdom of a lawsuit at this time. He said that school funding will be restored after getting people back to work and restoring our economy. Huebert asked about schools’ emphasis on cuts made to base funding from the state, which is about one-third of total school spending in the case of the Wichita district. Additionally, for the Wichita school system, with its large number of special needs students and students eligible for free and reduced weightings, about two-thirds of the total budget comes from these weightings to the base state aid, and many of these weights do not have restrictions. Talking about only the base funding, Huebert said, is very misleading.

Allison said he did not disagree, but when cuts have been made, they’ve been made to the base funding. Each time the district takes a reduction, fewer discretionary funds are available.

Allison said that there are some special education students said that cost “hundreds of thousands per year to provide what’s being required.”

Senator Susan Wagle, a Republican from east Wichita said that in order to fund Montoy it would require a very large tax increase, and asked if Allison was asking for a tax increase at a time when Kansas families and other Kansas state agencies have experienced larger cuts than schools have faced. Allison said that the question is not advocating a tax increase as much as asking what are the current revenue streams, and are “exemptions and other areas where they need to be in order to meet some of the other obligations of the state.”

Wagle said we need a “reasonable discussion about how you squeeze blood out of a turnip.” Schools are asking way too much, she said, and animosity is developing because of the decision to sue. Most people when they want funding come to the legislature, and legislators make balanced decisions and fund what they can. We cannot fund Montoy “without an extravagant tax increase,” she said.

Allison responded that the decision to sue has been made by a large number of elected officials, and “time will tell regarding animosity.” He said he hopes, from a superintendent’s perspective, that we find a way to bridge not only the current situation, but also to look at the long term.

Coverage from the Wichita Eagle’s Dion Lefler is at Legislators, Wichita superintendent clash over school funding.

Kansas open records examined

Here’s another outstanding investigative report by Paul Soutar of the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. I have experienced some of the same obstacles that Soutar has encountered. Last year Wichita school district board member Lynn Rogers told me that record requests are a burden. Interim superintendent Martin Libhart’s attitude was similarly hostile towards legitimate citizen requests for records. Indications are that new board president Barb Fuller and new superintendent John Allison have a better attitude towards records requests, and I hope that time proves this to be the case.

The spirit is willing but the law is weak

Paul Soutar, Flint Hills Center for Public Policy

Government transparency in Kansas is determined largely by open records and open meetings laws which state lofty goals but offer many loopholes and exemptions and few penalties for violations of the laws.

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) starts off well. “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

Similarly the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) begins, “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.”

The legislation that follows these broad and lofty goals, however, is full of exemptions and loopholes that circumvent the stated intent. Ignorance of the law and poor compliance by various government bodies also limit its effectiveness according to government transparency advocates.

A 2008 Better Government Association (BGA) report ranked Kansas’ open records law 18th in the nation. A 2007 study by BGA and the National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas an F and ranked the state 25th out of 50. A 2002 study by BGA and Investigative Reporters and Editors gave Kansas a D.

Citizens who believe KORA or KOMA law has been violated can file a complaint with the local county attorney, district court or the state’s attorney general. Michael Smith, a Kansas assistant attorney general responsible for issues relating to KORA and KOMA, says complaints about KORA and KOMA compliance are handled locally out of practicality. He says with more than 4,000 government units in Kansas his office would be stretched way too thin.

Smith stressed the importance of government transparency and awareness of the law during KORA/KOMA training held in Dodge, Olathe, Topeka and Wichita in June. A total of 332 people attended the training. According to registration data received from Smith’s office, 255 were affiliated with government, 46 were with the media and only 14 said they were unaffiliated citizens; another 17 did not list any affiliation.

From January 2007 to June 2008 there were 62 complaints filed at the county level according to reports submitted to the state attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office received 78 complaints during that time, including some referred from the county.

In most cases no violation was found. Some violations were resolved by delivery of the requested material. In a few cases the offending government employee or elected official was required to attend KORA or KOMA training. None of the violations covered by documents obtained from the attorney general’s office resulted in the $500 fine that is permitted by state law.

There are some common issues leading to problems with KORA. Chief among them is ignorance of the law.

The law allows an agency to require a written request but not on a specific form and only as a way to ensure good communication. The requester can only be required to provide their name and a description of the information being requested and provide proof of identification. It is not permitted to ask for the person’s employer or a reason for the request. Governments can require written certification that the requester will not use names and addresses obtained to solicit sales or services but only when someone is requesting names or addresses.

Many times government employees or elected officials are unfamiliar with the law and their first reaction is to look for reasons to deny access or information. It can be complicated because there are 48 exemptions to KORA in the statute and more than 300 elsewhere in other Kansas laws according to Smith. Most exemptions deal with personal privacy issues and release of some personal information can result in a lawsuit against the government.

During KORA/KOMA training Smith said record custodians must be familiar with records and know which portions of a record cannot be released. “If you’re a record custodian you better know if any of those records are closed.”

Another common complaint is excessive charges for providing information. KORA allows agencies to charge requesters only for the actual cost of making copies, including staff time to gather, redact and copy the records.

Smith says the only place the law addresses fee disputes is with state agencies. In those cases the department of administration has final and binding say. There’s nothing like that for local government, so disputes over fees at the local level must go to the local county or district attorney.

Taxpayer Frustrations

Paul Driver, CEO of ATG Sports in Andover, filed an open records request with the Wichita School District seeking information regarding an April 2009 synthetic turf contract awarded to a Texas company for $371,000 more than ATG’s bid. According to Driver the district said it would cost him $800 to fulfill his request. Driver offered to bring his own copier to cut costs. “At that point, the school district said we would need to bring our own power source to make the copies.” Eventually a deal was reached for Kansas Blue Print to make the copies for $350.

The Flint Hills Center for Public Policy requested a copy of a budget report presented to the Wichita Board of Education for their fiscal year ended June 30, 2009. Flint Hills was informed that there would be a $50 charge for 2.5 hours of staff time to make an electronic copy of the report and that the money would have to be paid before work commenced.

Upon delivery of the check, the report was burned to a CD in less than 15 minutes. Allowing $5 for the cost of the CD the employee’s time was effectively charged at $180 per hour. When asked to explain what work was actually done to warrant the charges the employee said he would not answer without a written request for review, which Flint Hills has filed.

Material provided to Wichita Board of Education members at their public meetings is available on the district’s web site a few days preceding the meeting and is taken down the day of the meeting. Former board president Lynn Rogers said the short availability may be because of space considerations on district Internet servers. The district web site does contain marketing newsletters from 2006.

When asked about the incidents involving Flint Hills and ATG Sports, Wichita School Superintendent John Allison said after less than one month in the job he was unfamiliar with the specific incidents or the district’s policy and how procedure is determined. “My intent would be to meet the requirements of the open records law and do that on a timely and equitable manner for everybody that requests.”

Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell used KORA to try to extract information from the Kansas State Department of Education about claimed achievement test improvement as a justification for more taxpayer money. Chappell also asked for information to explain a large discrepancy between state and national student achievement test scores.

Chappell made the request to Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Alexa Posny in a letter dated June 9. He asked for, “any KSDE research report or independent contractor research report provided to the KSDE which supports your claims.”

Chappell says responses to his request from KSDE and its lawyers did not provide what he was looking for and believes their response may indicate that no such report exists. KORA does stipulate that only existing documents are covered and agencies are not required to generate reports, explain or answer questions.

It’s also noteworthy that an elected member of the state’s school board had to resort to an open records request to get answers from KSDE, part of the education system he was elected to help oversee.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer says government should be open and everything possible made accessible at little cost to the public. But she’s concerned that the law doesn’t apply equally to all levels of government. “I think local government elected officers and appointees are treated in a different manner from some state officials.”

Of particular concern is recent legislation prohibiting serial meetings. A serial meeting covers “… a series of interactive communications of less than a majority of a governing body that collectively involve a majority of the body and share a common topic concerning affairs of the body and are intended to reach an agreement.” Meetings in person, over the Internet, phone or via e-mail are included.

Welshimer said some open meetings requirements, such as a prohibition on serial meetings, have a disproportionate effect on local government and has the opposite effect of what the law was intended to do. “Tight regulations on county commissioners make it extremely difficult to carry out policy and reach decisions.” She says most of that work is done behind closed doors by county managers who work up an issue and create the agenda before giving commission members a short briefing preceding the vote.

“We can’t talk to each other so we can’t discuss anything. So I don’t know what the reasoning is for my colleague to vote one way or another,” Welshimer said in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes that’s a totally new subject and we haven’t been able to talk to each other to see what each other knows about it.”

When asked about opportunities to ask questions in open meetings Welshimer said commissioners, like most elected officials, are reluctant to appear uninformed in public.

State legislators can order research from the Legislative Research Department. That research is not open to the public unless released by the legislator.

Welshimer, a former state representative, wants to know why state legislators aren’t held to the same standards as local elected officials. “The legislature has serial meetings constantly. They go along and count votes.” She says this allows legislators to research a topic, write a proposal, gather sufficient support for passage and spring it on the legislature. She says city and county managers have similar opportunities. “Every group in town can talk with the county or city manager about some item and then the manager can spring it on the commission. So where in this process do we have openness?”

Welshimer says anything the legislature does should apply to them and believes the state’s open meeting law should be rewritten.

Challenges for Wichita’s new school superintendent

Recently John Allison, new superintendent for USD 259, the Wichita public school district, was interviewed by the Wichita Eagle. The article reporting on the interview is at Great time to be superintendent.

In the interview, Allison mentioned “painful” budget cuts. The cuts that K through 12 education is facing in Kansas, however, are minor compared to what many other state agencies are facing.

We should also remember that many school districts have plenty of money, so much so that, as I’ve reported, spending advocates will challenge anyone who mentions just how much there is to spend.

Allison mentioned teaming with other school districts to gain economies in sharing services and purchasing. While the district should do this if it will save money, small reforms like these are merely nipping at the margin. What the district needs to do is look at big reforms that can save large amounts and improve educational outcomes.

One such reform is widespread school choice, implemented as charter schools and voucher/tax credit programs. School choice programs save money. Two years ago, The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the study School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. According to the executive summary: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.”

Some school choice programs would require a change in Kansas state law. I’m sure if the new Wichita Superintendent testified in favor of them, it would have a big impact.

Charter schools, however, require no new laws. All it requires is the willingness of the local school board to authorize one. Allison could take the lead on this.

Allison mentioned mandates which require “more resources and often more paperwork and administrative costs.” Some of these mandates, such as the federal No Child Left Behind law, are roundly criticized as ineffective. This is a problem that a local superintendent probably can’t overcome.

As a nation we need to examine these mandates along with their costs that Allison mentioned. Are they necessary? Do they add value? This examination is not likely to happen, as the public schools — at least in Wichita — operate with little real competition, and therefore face little pressure to control costs and allocate resources to what people really want.

The new superintendent also needs to take steps to assure citizens that the many years of rising test scores claimed by the district (and the state of Kansas, too) are valid and meaningful. In some states it’s been shown that the tests are being watered-down or cut scores manipulated to show the results that politicians want.

John Allison is taking over the Wichita school system at a dangerous time. The primary danger is that improvements like the expensive bond issue passed last year send the school district down a path that, while producing lots of shiny buildings, will do little to improve educational outcomes. It also sets up Wichita for much higher costs in the future as new facilities and classrooms come online.

Whether Allison will be able to — or if he even wants to — buck the traditional educationist orthodoxy is unknown at this time. But here’s a clue: Would the present Wichita school board have hired a reform-minded superintendent? Not likely.