Who are the winners and losers now that the decision in Gannon vs. Kansas — better known as the Kansas school finance lawsuit — has been reached?
The decision reached by the court is that Kansas schools are unconstitutionally underfunded. While it is most commonly reported that the decision requires Kansas to spend an additional $440 million per year on schools, the actual amount of increased spending will be $594 million per year. This is because of the mechanism of the local option budget, according to Kansas Policy Institute. The decision is being appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.
The winners are the Kansas school spending establishment. These are the people who are devoted to spending more on Kansas schools — without regard to need, or whether the spending increases student achievement, or whether the spending is harmful to the Kansas economy. The main cheerleader for this team is Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union. Although not a party to the suit, Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) is a winner, too. Kansans should remember a story told by Kansas House of Representatives member Arlen Siegfreid of a conversation he had with KASB lobbyist Mark Tallman: “During our discussion I asked Mr. Tallman if we (the State) had the ability to give the schools everything he asked for would he still ask for even more money for schools. His answer was, ‘Of course, that’s my job.’”
An obvious group of losers is Kansas taxpayers. Obviously.
The people who truly lost, and who will suffer the most from the court’s decision, are Kansas schoolchildren. That’s because most people believe the problems with Kansas schools — whatever they are — can be solved with more spending. Certainly that’s the position taken by school system bureaucrats and others who benefit from increased school spending.
These advocates for spending conveniently ignore that school spending has been on a long upward trajectory, while at the same time test scores are steady or even falling in some cases. But school spending is an easy issue. Appeals that tug on heartstrings — “It’s for the kids” — are easy to make. And it’s easy to spend more on schools — at least easier than the real reforms that will help Kansas schoolchildren.
The relevant part of the Kansas Constitution states: “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” It’s a good thing for the state’s education bureaucracy the Constitution doesn’t say “the state shall provide a suitable education.” We’d be in a lot of trouble.
The state of Kansas schools
Those who think Kansas schools are doing well should compare Kansas NAEP scores with those of Texas. See Kansas school test scores, in perspective for an explanation of why Kansas test scores seem to be much better than other states.
Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker has written that she is proud of student achievement in Kansas: “Since 2001, the percentage of students statewide who perform in the top three levels on state reading assessments has jumped from about 60 percent to more than 87 percent. In math, the jump has been from just more than 54 percent to nearly 85 percent.”
This rise in performance, however, is only on tests that the Kansas education establishment controls. On every measure of student performance that I know of that is independent, this rising trend in student achievement does not appear. In some measures, for some recent years, the performance of Kansas students has declined.
How can it be that one series of tests scores are rising, but not others? Kansas school administrators don’t have a good answer for this. But there is a good reason: The Kansas test scores are subject to manipulation for political reasons.
In 2006 Kansas implemented new tests, and the state specifically warns that comparisons with previous years — like 2001 — are not valid. A KSDE document titled Kansas Assessments in Reading and Mathematics 2006 Technical Manual states so explicitly: “As the baseline year of the new round of assessments, the Spring 2006 administration incorporated important changes from prior KAMM assessments administered in the 2000 — 2005 testing cycle. Curriculum standards and targets for the assessments were changed, test specifications revised, and assessed grade levels expanded to include students in grades 3-8 and one grade level in high school. In effect, no comparison to past student, building, district, or state performance should be made.” (emphasis added.)
Despite this warning, DeBacker and Kansas school superintendents make an invalid statistical comparison. This is not an innocent mistake. This is an actual example of — turning the superintendents’ quote on themselves — “data that was used out of context, completely misrepresenting the truth.”
On other tests, only 28 percent of Kansas students are ready for college-level work in all four subjects the ACT test covers. While this result was slightly better than the national average, it means that nearly three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates need to take one or more remedial college courses.
School spending advocates also take advantage of the fact that citizens are 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.
Kansas school standards
Last summer Kansas schools received a waiver from participating in the No Child Left Behind program. KSDE reported: “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).”
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.
Last year Kansas school superintendents wrote an op-ed proclaiming the high standards and performance of Kansas schools. But what Kansans ought to take notice of is the superintendents’ claim in this sentence: “Historically, our state has had high-performing schools, which make Kansas a great place to live, raise a family and run a business.”
The truth is that when compared to other states, Kansas has low standards.
The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has analyzed state standards, and we can see that Kansas has standards that are below most states. 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. An analysis of these tables by the Kansas Policy Institute shows that few states have standards below the Kansas standards.
This table is from KPI’s report in 2012 titled Removing Barriers to Better Public Education: Analyzing the facts about student achievement and school spending.
The conclusion by NCES is “… most states’ proficiency standards are at or below NAEP’s definition of Basic performance.” KPI, based on simple analysis of the NCES data, concluded: “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.”
Should we spend more on Kansas schools?
Education is vitally important, school officials tell us. They’re right — and that’s why the education of Kansas schoolchildren is too important to be exclusively in the hands of government.
The school finance lawsuits illustrate this. Suppose that the court is right, and that increased spending will fix the problems with schools. How many years will pass before the solution is implemented? And even if we immediately start spending more, do we really think it will improve student outcomes, in light of our past experience?
The solution for Kansas schoolchildren is increased school choice, through charter schools and either vouchers or tax credit scholarships. This is what we are missing in Kansas. With greater choices available to students and parents, there will be less need for government oversight of schools and all the bickering that accompanies decisions made through the political process.
This is the reform that will most help Kansas schoolchildren. It will cost less and improve outcomes. It doesn’t require fleets of education bureaucrats and stacks of plans and regulations. But it does require the school establishment to give up some power and their stranglehold on the use of public funds for schools.
Unfortunately, we’re not moving in that direction in Kansas. Recently in Wichita, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback had two opportunities to promote school choice in Kansas. On the Joseph Ashby radio program he was asked about school choice, but wouldn’t commit to it as a priority.
Later that day at the Wichita Pachyderm Club a similar question was asked, and again Brownback wouldn’t commit to school choice. The focus right now is efficiency and to get fourth grade reading levels up, Brownback said. He added that about 28 percent of fourth graders can’t read at basic level, which he described as a “real problem. If you can’t read, the world starts really shrinking around you.”
It’s a mystery why Governor Brownback hasn’t made school choice a priority in Kansas. Many governors are doing that and instituting other wide-reaching reforms.