Tag Archives: Kansas legislature

Articles about the Kansas legislature, both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Kansas school finance reporting and opinion

school-crayons-colored-pencils-168392There’s a range of opinion, that’s for sure.

Republicans concede bill would let teachers be fired without cause (Wichita Eagle)
“Statehouse Republicans are having to abandon a key talking point in their effort to defuse teacher anger over an anti-tenure bill the Legislature passed a week ago, conceding the bill would allow school districts to fire veteran teachers without having to give a reason why. If Gov. Sam Brownback signs the bill into law, teachers would essentially be at-will employees of their school districts and able to challenge termination only if they allege the firing violates their constitutional rights.” Click here to read.

Kansas bill renews debate about how easy it should be to fire teachers (Kansas City Star)
There is a diversity of opinion, much conflicting, it seems: “It’s not too damn hard to fire a teacher,” said Marcus Baltzell, the director of communications for the Kansas National Education Association. “It’s just that the teacher has a redress of due process, a hearing officer, (a chance to say) ‘Here’s my take. Here’s what we’ve done to address the area of concern, and I believe this is unfair.’” … “Lawmakers who backed the change — it becomes law if Gov. Sam Brownback signs it — argued that dumping dead weight from the faculty has become harder than it ought to be.” … “I don’t like tenure. I never have,” said Rep. Ward Cassidy, a Republican from northwest Kansas who worked as a high school principal for 20 years. “Good principals have a whole lot of other things to do besides going through all you need to fire a teacher.” Click here to read.

In Wichita, Brownback neither praises nor criticizes measure stripping K-12 teacher tenure rights (Wichita Eagle)
“… most questions he was asked after his short talk concerned a provision to strip veteran K-12 teachers of tenure rights in the recently passed public school financing bill, which he said he has not decided whether to sign. And while he didn’t criticize that provision, he didn’t endorse it either.” Click here to read.

In Kansas, education is all about money and politics for UMEEA (Kansas Policy Institute)
“Media reaction to the school finance legislation has been pretty predictable. It focuses almost exclusively on institutions and ignores the impact on students. As usual, it’s all about money and politics. Unions, media and their allies in the education establishment (UMEEA) oppose tax credit scholarships for low income students. They rail against taxpayer money going to private schools and how that might mean a little less money for public institutions but ignore the very real purpose and need for the program. (FYI, the scholarship program is capped at $10 million; schools are expected to spend almost $6 billion this year.) Achievement gaps for low income students are large and getting worse, despite the fact that At Risk funding intended to improve outcomes increased seven-fold over the last eight years. So predictably, a program to give an alternative to low income students in the 99 lowest-performing schools is attacked by UMEEA as being unfair to institutions. Media and their establishment friends don’t even make a token mention of the serious achievement problem. It’s all about money and politics.” Click here to read.

Far-Right Kansas Legislature Sells Out Kansas Schools (Kansas Democratic Party)
“But none of these stories could compete with what the Kansas Legislature did to Kansas public schools. Under the cover of night and with virtually no debate or hearings, the Kansas Legislature forced through an education “reform” bill that stripped teachers of due process rights, passed out even more tax breaks to corporations, and potentially widened the disparity between rich schools and poor schools. School districts say new school finance bill will widen disparities.” Click here to read.

Opinion: Public education under attack (Lawrence Journal-World)
“The inclusion of these so-called “policy” provisions in the school finance bill passed by the Legislature are a mistake and will actually harm the very schools that the Kansas Supreme Court sought to assist. This is just one more step in the Legislature’s assault on public K-12 education in Kansas.” Click here to read.

Teachers are sacrificial lambs in school finance (Iola Register via High Plains Daily Leader and Southwest Daily Times)
A confused editorial. The writer says that teachers are held accountable to, among others, school administrators, but usually it is claimed that teachers need defense from this accountability. “The defense of tenure is at its best when you consider a teacher is accountable to hundreds of ‘bosses’ — parents and school boards as well as administrators.” Click here to read.

Selling education (Hutchinson News)
“Two elements of the bill are particularly troubling. One creates a $10 million-a-year corporate welfare program in support of private education. It allows large companies to enjoy a 70-percent credit against their state tax liability if they offer scholarships to at-risk students who move to private schools. This has nothing at all to do with public education equity; rather it creates a mechanism to damage the finance structure for public schools. The second concerning component redefines “teacher” as a way to eliminate due process protections. And the concept of teacher tenure is a myth. The current due process for teachers simply ensures a written termination notice and the right to challenge the decision through review by a hearing officer. In fact the Kansas Association of School Boards reported that the state sees about 10 due process claims each year – hardly a number that indicates a systemic problem that requires legislative action. The measure is little more than a way to break the teachers’ union and silence those teachers who honestly educate and advocate for their students.” Click here to read.

Richard Crowson: We Need Some Education (KMUW)
“And that guy who was smiling and joking with me in the checkout line at the grocery last Saturday? He lit a firebomb, taped a tax credit for private school supporters on it, and flung it through the window of a first grade classroom in the wee hours of Sunday morning.” Click here to read.

Rep. Rooker ‘heartsick’ over results of education finance bill (Prairie Village Post)
Small steps towards Kansas education reform are “immoral” and make this representative “heartsick.” Click here to read.

Shame, says Wichita Eagle editorial board (Voice for Liberty)
The Wichita Eagle editorial board, under the byline of Rhonda Holman, issued a stern rebuke to the Kansas Legislature for its passage of HB 2506 over the weekend. Click here to read.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Schools and the nature of competition and cooperation, Wind power and taxes

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A Kansas newspaper editorial is terribly confused about schools and the nature of competition in markets. Then, we already knew that the wind power industry in Kansas enjoys tax credits and mandates. Now we learn that the industry largely escapes paying property taxes. Episode 38, broadcast April 6, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Shame on Legislature - Rhonda Holman

Shame, says Wichita Eagle editorial board

Shame on Legislature - Rhonda HolmanThe Wichita Eagle editorial board, under the byline of Rhonda Holman, issued a stern rebuke to the Kansas Legislature for its passage of HB 2506 over the weekend. (Eagle editorial: Shame on Legislature, April 8, 2014)

Here are some notes on a few of Holman’s points.

She wrote that the legislature should not “undermine teachers’ rights and meddle in education policymaking.” First: There’s controversy over what the bill actually means to the relationship between teachers and their employers. Courts will probably have to intervene. Second: Should the Legislature have a say in policy, or just pay?

Then, she criticized the bill as “passed with only Republican votes” on a “Sunday night.” This reminded me of the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in the United States Senate. At the time, The Hill reported: “The Senate approved sweeping healthcare reform legislation by the narrowest of partisan margins early Christmas Eve morning” (Senate passes historic healthcare reform legislation in 60-39 vote) That’s right: Votes from only one party, and on Christmas Eve.

Later in her op-ed Holman complained: “With such handling of the various bills, GOP legislative leaders also failed to reflect Brownback’s State of the State assertion that the ‘wonderfully untidy’ business of appropriations is ‘open for all to see.’ They held a conference committee meeting at 3 a.m. Sunday — after media, most legislators and the teachers had left the Statehouse for the night, and with insufficient public notice.” Reading this, I was again reminded of the passage of Obamacare, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her famous explanation as reported by Politico:

“You’ve heard about the controversies, the process about the bill .. but I don’t know if you’ve heard that it is legislation for the future — not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America,” she told the National Association of Counties annual legislative conference, which has drawn about 2,000 local officials to Washington. “But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it — away from the fog of the controversy.”

On the expansion of innovative districts, Holman wrote: “Nobody even knows whether the new ‘innovative districts’ program will work or is constitutional,” calling it an “accountability-free concept.” Well, we know that an important provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was ruled unconstitutional (the expansion of Medicaid), and Chief Justice John Roberts had to torture logic and the plain meaning of words in order to shoehorn the individual mandate into the Constitution.

I’m not saying that I approve of the way the Kansas Legislature approved this bill. But if it worked for Obamacare, and if Rhonda Holman and the Wichita Eagle editorial board like Obamacare (they do), well, you can draw your own conclusions.

Also, Holman complained of “unproven ideological reforms” contained in the Kansas school legislation. Two things: First, we know that the present system of public education in Kansas is not working for many children. For example, if we critically examine the National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores that Kansans are so proud of, we find that for some groups of students, the national public school average beats or ties Kansas.

Or, if we read the National Center for Education Statistics report Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales, we can learn that Kansas has relatively low standards for its schools, and when Kansas was spending more on schools due to the Montoy decision from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state lowered the standards.

ideology-definitionI’m of the opinion that whenever someone criticizes their opponents as ideological — as the Wichita Eagle editorial board has — they don’t have a very good argument. They’re likely confusing ideology with partisanship. The Wikipedia entry for ideology says: “An ideology is a set of conscious and unconscious ideas that constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology is a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things. … Ideologies are systems of abstract thought applied to public matters and thus make this concept central to politics. Implicitly every political or economic tendency entails an ideology whether or not it is propounded as an explicit system of thought.”

I wish the Eagle editorial board was more ideological. If it firmly believed in economic freedom, free markets, limited government, and individual liberty — that’s an ideology we could live with, and Kansas schoolchildren could thrive under.

Instead, we’re left with the Wichita Eagle editorial board’s ideology of less educational freedom and less accountability to those who pay the bills and parent the students.

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In Kansas, education is all about money and politics for UMEEA

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Education is all about money and politics for UMEEA

By Dave Trabert

Media reaction to the school finance legislation has been pretty predictable. It focuses almost exclusively on institutions and ignores the impact on students. As usual, it’s all about money and politics.

Unions, media and their allies in the education establishment (UMEEA) oppose tax credit scholarships for low income students. They rail against taxpayer money going to private schools and how that might mean a little less money for public institutions but ignore the very real purpose and need for the program. (FYI, the scholarship program is capped at $10 million; schools are expected to spend almost $6 billion this year.)

Achievement gaps for low income students are large and getting worse, despite the fact that At Risk funding intended to improve outcomes increased seven-fold over the last eight years. So predictably, a program to give an alternative to low income students in the 99 lowest-performing schools is attacked by UMEEA as being unfair to institutions. Media and their establishment friends don’t even make a token mention of the serious achievement problem. It’s all about money and politics.

An ugly, inconvenient truth about low income achievement gaps emerges when the data is honestly examined. We compiled and published the information in our2014 Public Education Fact Book, available on our web site. For example, only 45 percent of 4th grade low income students can read grade-appropriate material with full comprehension on the state assessment, versus 74 percent of those who are not low income. State assessment data also shows that 57 percent of low income students in private accredited Kansas schools can read grade-appropriate material with full comprehension. Tax credit scholarships offer a lifeline to low income students who want to try something else.

And before the attacks on the validity of the data begin, know that Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker and I participated in a discussion on the topic before the House and Senate Education committees recently; she could have objected or corrected me when I presented this KSDE achievement data. She did not. Instead, she said low income achievement gaps are large and getting worse. Even the education establishment agrees that having effective teachers in classrooms is probably the most important element of improving outcomes, but of course money and politics take priority over students, so UMEEA attacks efforts to make it easier and faster to remove ineffective teachers. After all, the adults in the system are a higher priority than students.

And don’t forget to throw in some clichés … efforts to help students are “ideological” but prioritizing institutional demands is “progressive” and “pragmatic.” UMEEA likes to pretend that “just spend more” and promoting institutional demands are not ideological positions.

Media is also spreading institutional notions that increasing the Local Option Budget (LOB) ceiling from 31 percent to 33 percent will create inequities among school districts, even though legislators just agreed to fully equalize the LOB. If school districts really believed that higher ceilings create inequity, they would be calling for the ceiling to be reduced. One must wonder if the real issue is that districts don’t want to, or can’t, justify the need for higher property taxes to local voters.

UMEEA will continue to attack legislators for combining policy reforms with the commitment to increase spending for equalization, but the simple reality is that that may have been the only real chance to get these student-focused initiatives passed. In that regard, spending more money finally made a difference for students.

Kansas Flint Hills

Kansas values, applied to schools

A Kansas public policy advocacy group makes an emotional pitch to petition signers, but signers should first be aware of actual facts.

To drum up support for its positions, Kansas Values Institute has started on online petition urging Kansas Governor Sam Brownback to veto HB 2506. Here’s the pitch made to potential petition signers:

“Governor Brownback has had four years to make schools a priority, but all he has to show for it is classrooms that are over crowded, parents paying rising school fees, and his signature achievement: the largest cut to classrooms in the history of Kansas. The Supreme Court’s ruling gave the Governor a chance to correct his course.”

Now, the governor has not necessarily been a friend of education, if by that we mean Kansas schoolchildren and parents. His lack of advocacy for school choice programs stands out from the progress that other Republican governors have made in their states. See The Year of School Choice and 2013: Yet Another ‘Year of School Choice.’

Kansas school spending, per student, from state, local, and federal sources, adjusted for inflation.

Kansas school spending, per student, from state, local, and federal sources, adjusted for inflation.

But we ought to hold public discourse like this to a certain standard, and the pitch made by Kansas Values Institute deserves examination.

Kansas school spending, per student, adjusted for inflation. While base state aid per pupil has declined, state and total spending has remained steady after declining during the recession.

Kansas school spending, per student, adjusted for inflation. While base state aid per pupil has declined, state and total spending has remained steady after declining during the recession.

With regard to school funding, cuts were made by Brownback’s predecessors. Since he became governor, funding is pretty level, on a per student basis adjusted for inflation. It’s true that base state aid per pupil has declined due to the cuts made by governors before Brownback. But state and total funding has been steady since then.

Nonetheless, some people insist on using base state aid as the measure of school spending. They make this argument even though total Kansas state spending per pupil the past year was $6,984, or 1.82 times base state aid of $3,838. Adding local and federal sources, spending was $12,781 per student, or 3.33 times base state aid.

Ratios of school spending to base state aid.

Ratios of school spending to base state aid.

Further, as can be seen in the nearby chart, there has been a steady increase in the ratios of state and total school spending to base state aid.

This is important, as the Kansas Supreme Court issued some instructions in the recent Gannon decision when it remanded part the case to the lower court. The Court said all funding sources are to be considered: “In the panel’s assessment, funds from all available resources, including grants and federal assistance, should be considered.” This will certainly test the faith in courts that school spending boosters have proclaimed.

So the claims of the present governor being responsible for “the largest cut to classrooms in the history of Kansas” is false.

Then, what about “classrooms that are over crowded”? Kansas State Department of Education has data on this topic, sort of. KSDE provides the number of employees in school districts and the number of students. I obtained and analyzed this data. I found that the situation is not the same in every school district. But considering the entire state, two trends emerge. For the past two years, the number of teachers employed in Kansas public schools has risen. Correspondingly, the pupil-teacher ratio has fallen.

Kansas school employment ratios

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 of these employees to pupils has fallen.

There’s also a video explaining these statistics. Click here to view it at YouTube. Others have noticed discrepancies in school job claims. See Kansas school employment: Mainstream media notices.

In its pitch, Kansas Values Institute complain that class sizes in Kansas schools are rising. The data that we have, which is the ratio of teachers to pupils, is not the same statistic as class size. They measure different things. But if Kansas schools, considered as a whole, have rising teacher and certified employment levels and the pupil to teacher ratio is decreasing, and at the same time class sizes are increasing — we have to wonder about the management of schools. What are schools doing with these new employees?

As far as I know, no one tracks school district fees across the state. I’d welcome learning of such data.

But regarding data we do have, we see that Kansas Values Institute is either not paying attention, or simply doesn’t care about truthfulness.

I’ve created interactive visualizations that let you examine the employment levels and ratios in Kansas school districts. Click here for the visualization of employment levels. Click here for the visualization of ratios (pupil-teacher and pupil-certified employee). Data is from Kansas State Department of Education. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public.

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Kansas not good on spending visibility

For more about this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

The results are in, and the news isn’t good: Kansas continues to plummet in state spending transparency rankings, and it barely squeaked by with a grade of D-minus, according to a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Kansas Capitol

Kansas Policy Institute at work

Kansas CapitolA letter in the Wichita Eagle accused Kansas Policy Institute of the “destruction of K-12 education.” Following is part of the comment KPI president Dave Trabert wrote in response to the letter. It’s a good recap of what KPI has done the past few years. I’m left to wonder how anyone who cares about Kansas schoolchildren could be opposed to the work KPI has done.

We are showing citizens and legislators the facts about student achievement. Contrary to claims of nation-leading achievement, Kansas students scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and ACT are just about average. Overall averages are distorted by demographic differences but scores for each student cohort (White, Low Income, etc.) are actually about average across the nation.

We are showing citizens and legislators that the achievement gaps for low income students in Kansas are large and growing. Even [Kansas Education Commissioner] Diane DeBacker had to agree with that statement in front of the House and Senate Education Committees.

We proved that Kansas State Department of Education and the State Board of Education reduced performance standards to some of the lowest in the nation (according to the US Dept. of Ed.).

We are giving people the truth about school spending and showing that very large spending increases did very little to improve achievement.

We are showing people that school spending continues to set records, even though districts are not even spending all of the money they are given to run schools.

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In Kansas, base state aid is only a small part of spending

chalkboard-portion-800Considering only base state aid per pupil leads to an incomplete understanding of school spending in Kansas. The Gannon school finance decision reinforces this.

Much of the discussion surrounding school funding in Kansas has centered around base state aid per pupil. It’s the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula, and therefore an important number.

Ratios of school spending to base state aid.

Ratios of school spending to base state aid.

Base state aid per pupil has fallen in recent years. Because of this, public school spending advocates claim that spending has been cut. But that’s not the case. As shown in the nearby chart, there has been a steady increase in measures of school spending when compared to base state aid.

Considering Kansas state spending only, the ratio of state spending to base state aid was 1.10 in 1998. By 2013 that ratio had risen to 1.82, an increase of 65 percent for the ratio.

For total spending, the ratio rose from 1.86 to 3.33 over the same period, an increase of 79 percent.

What’s important to realize is that the nature of Kansas school funding has changed in a way that makes base state aid per pupil less important as a measure of school spending. Research from Kansas Policy Institute has shown that while base state aid per pupil has not grown, total state spending on schools has grown. Two reasons are rising spending on KPERS pension contributions and aid to schools for bond construction projects. The largest factor is rapid growth in the spending produced by the school finance formula’s various weightings.

A chart is available from KPI at Simple Comparisons of Base State Aid are Deceptive.

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas school finance lawsuit, problems solved?

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Kansas Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit. What did the court say, and did it address the real and important issues with Kansas schools? Episode 37, broadcast March 30, 2014. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Kansas wind turbines

Rural Kansans’ billion-dollar subsidy of wind farms

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Rural Kansans’ Billion-Dollar Subsidy of Wind Farms

By Dave Trabert

Kansas wind turbinesNo, I’m not talking about any federal tax subsidies or mandates to buy high-cost wind energy that have forced higher taxes and electricity prices on every citizen. This billion-dollar gift comes in the form of local property tax exemptions. In some ways, this handout is even more insidious because the cost is borne by a relatively small number of Kansas homeowners and employers in the rural counties where wind farms exist.

Under current law, renewable energy producers enjoy a lifetime exemption from property taxes in Kansas. I testified last week in support of SB 435 to limit their property tax exemption to ten years.  As shown on an attachment to my testimony, the Kansas Legislative Research Department says there is a $108.4 million annual difference between the small fees paid in lieu of taxes and the taxes that would be due if taxed at the regular rates within each county. So technically, the legislation would only “limit” the property tax gift to $1.1 billion over ten years on existing wind farms; more tax gifts would still be done on new wind farms and other renewable energy facilities.

And while renewable energy producers were basically getting a free ride, property taxes on everyone else where going through the roof!

Giving property tax exemptions to private companies, regardless of the rationale, only increases everyone else’s property tax. Local government spending is not curtailed to absorb the exemption; cities and counties just raise taxes on everyone else. We encouraged the Legislature to also require that local mill rates be reduced proportionately if these property tax gifts are limited to ten years so that the new revenue from renewable energy producers’ property tax is used to reduce the burden on everyone else. (You should have seen the stink-eye this produced from the tax-and-spend crowd.)

Predictably, wind farm lobbyists lined up to protest that this legislation would increase their property taxes and send a bad message to the wind industry. Even local governments are opposed to taking away the exemption — after all, they can get their money from everyone else and take credit for bringing jobs and investment to their communities. They refuse to acknowledge that any economic benefit enjoyed by the green energy industry (and their own political benefit) comes out of the pockets of everyone else.

P.S. Remember this billion-dollar gift the next time you’re angered by cronyism in Washington, DC. Bad players in Washington often learn their craft at the state level; fending off bad policy at the state level has many long term benefits.

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In Kansas, the Blob is worked up

apple-chalkboard-books“Education reformers have a name for the resistance: the education ‘Blob.’ The Blob includes the teachers unions, but also janitors and principals unions, school boards, PTA bureaucrats, local politicians and so on.” (John Stossel, The Blob That Ate Children.)

In Kansas, we’re seeing the Blob at full activation, vigorously protecting its interests. The source of the Blob’s consternation is a bill in the Kansas Legislature that would add charter schools and tax credit scholarships to the educational landscape in Kansas. (Kansas does have charter schools at present, but the law is so stacked in favor of the Blob’s interests that there are very few charter schools.)

An example of a prominent spokesperson for the Blob is the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman. She recently wrote regarding Kansas school funding: “In the Kansas Speaks survey released last fall by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, two-thirds said they wanted to see more K-12 state funding.”

I don’t doubt that these results are accurate. The desire for good schools is nearly universal. But when we look at the beliefs of people, we find that they are, largely, uninformed and misinformed about the level of school spending. Kansas Policy Institute commissioned a survey that asked the public a series of questions on schools and spending. (See Citizens generally misinformed on Kansas school spending.) A key finding is that most people think that schools spend much less than actual spending, and by a large margin. Further, most people think spending has declined, when in fact it has risen. These finding are similar to other research commissioned by KPI, and additional surveys by other organizations at the national level.

Not surprisingly, when citizens and taxpayers learn the true level of school spending, their attitude towards school spending changes. That’s dangerous to school spending advocates — the Blob. It diminishes their most compelling arguments for more school spending — “it’s for the kids.”

The Eagle editorial board, along with the Kansas City Star, has been instrumental in misinforming Kansans about school spending. These newspapers continually use base state aid per pupil as the measure of schools spending, when in fact this is just a fraction of total spending on schools. (See Here’s why Kansans are misinformed about schools.)

The survey that Holman relies upon as evidence of the desire for more school spending didn’t ask — as far as I know — questions to see if respondents were informed on the issue. Even worse: Instead of seeking to educate readers on the facts, Holman resorts to demagoguery and demonizing, referring to “education reforms coveted by some conservatives and the American Legislative Exchange Council.” There, the two evils: Conservatives and ALEC, the substance of her argument.

Reform in Kansas

There are two reforms being talked about in Kansas that are popular in other states. Popular except with the Blob, that is.

One is a tax credit scholarship program. This lets corporations make contributions to organizations that would provide scholarships for students to attend private schools. The corporations would then receive credits against their income tax. The Blob opposes programs like this. The Blob says that these programs simply let students that are already in private or church schools have the state pay their tuition.

But the proposed law in Kansas this year, as in years past, contains these provision: For the scholarship program, students must qualify as “at-risk” students and be attending a school that qualifies as “title I,” a program that applies to schools with many students from low-income families.

Further, the student must have been enrolled in a public school before seeking a scholarship, unless the student is less than six years old.

Together these requirements rebut the argument of the Blob: That the scholarships are just a way for children already in private or church schools to get tax funds to pay for their schools. Instead, the law targets these scholarships at students from low-income households.

Another possible reform is charter schools. These are schools that are public schools and receive public funding, but operate outside the present education establishment and local school boards. The Blob objects to this because they say that without government oversight, charter schools aren’t held accountable. The Blob must forget that charter schools are accountable to parents of children, which is a higher standard than the accountability of government bureaucrats. Also, unlike the regular public schools, the government can’t force children to attend a charter school.

The Blob criticizes charter schools because they say they “cherry-pick” the best students, leaving public schools with the worst. Here’s what the proposed Kansas law says: “A public charter school shall enroll all students who wish to attend the school.” If more students apply than the school has space, students will be selected via lottery. In most areas that have charter schools, there are many more aspirants than available spaces, and students are chosen by lottery. That would undoubtedly be the case in Kansas.

The Blob says that charter schools pick only the students they want, and therefore lead to segregation. Here’s the proposed law: “A public charter school shall be subject to all federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, race, creed, color, gender, national origin, religion, ancestry or need for special education services.”

Here’s what the Blob really hates: “A public charter school shall be exempt from all laws and rules and regulations that are otherwise applicable to public schools in this state.” And also this: “Teachers in public charter schools shall be exempt from the teacher certification requirements established by the state board.”

The Blob values its rules and regulations that make work for its fleets of bureaucrats. Never mind that these regulations probably don’t increase student learning. That’s not the point.

And the political muscle of the Blob, the teachers unions? Well, charter school teachers usually aren’t unionized. The union is in favor of public schools only if the the teachers are in unions.

What the Blob won’t tell you

The Kansas Blob is proud of Kansas schools, partly because of scores 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.

Visualization of National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.

Visualization of National Assessment of Educational Progress scores.

Data for the 2013 administration of the test was just released. I’ve gathered scores and made them available in a visualization that you can use at wichitaliberty.org. The most widely available NAEP data is for two subjects: reading and math, and for two grades, fourth and eighth. The video presents data for Kansas, Texas, and the average for national public schools. I choose to compare Kansas with Texas because for several reasons, Kansas has been comparing itself with Texas. So let’s look at these test scores and see if the reality matches what Kansas school leaders have said.

Looking at the data for all students, you can see why Kansas school leaders are proud: The line representing Kansas is almost always the highest.

NAEP makes data available by ethnic subtypes. If we present a chart showing black students only, something different appears. Now Texas is higher than Kansas in all cases in one, where there is a tie.

If we consider Hispanic students only: Texas is higher in some cases, and Kansas and Texas are virtually tied in two others. National public schools is higher than Kansas in some cases.

Considering white students only, Texas is higher than Kansas in three of four cases. In some cases the National public school average beats or ties Kansas.

So 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.

When you hear the Blob trumpet high Kansas test scores, does it also explain the nuances? No, of course not, But you can examine these test scores in an interactive visualization.

Kansas school standards

Another problem you won’t hear about from the Blob: Kansas has low standards for its schools. Even worse, at a time when Kansas was spending more on schools due to an order from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state lowered its already low standards for schools.

Kansas school standards for grade 4 reading compared to other states.

Kansas school standards for grade 4 reading compared to other states.

This is the conclusion of the National Center for Education Statistics, based on the most recent version of Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales. NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations, and is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.

The mapping project establishes a relationship between the tests each state gives to assess its students and the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test that is the same in all states. As explained in Kansas school standards and other states, Kansas standards are relatively low, compared to other states. This video explains. (View below, or click here to view in HD at YouTube.)

For Kansas, here are some key findings. First, NCES asks this question: “How do Kansas’s NAEP scale equivalent scores of reading standards for proficient performance at grades 4 and 8 in 2009 compare with those estimated for 2005 and 2007?”

For Kansas, the two answers are this (emphasis added):

“Although no substantive changes in the reading assessments from 2007 to 2009 were indicated by the state, the NAEP scale equivalent of both its grade 4 and grade 8 standards decreased.

Also: “Kansas made substantive changes to its reading grade 8 assessment between 2005 and 2009, and the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 8 standards decreased.

In other words, NCES judged that Kansas weakened its standards for reading performance.

Could lower open records fees threaten Kansans’ safety?

business-records-file-foldersTravis Perry of Kansas Watchdog reports that governmental agencies fear that fulfilling records requests will cost too much and eliminate a necessary revenue stream. But there are solutions that may not be under consideration. For example, instead of supplying accident reports singly as they are requested, law enforcement agencies could simply make all such reports available. I can hear the objections, such as it will cost too much for each agency to maintain a website for the purposes of making reports available. But each agency doesn’t have to establish and maintain a website. The state (or someone else) could easily and inexpensively establish a website for the purpose of distributing such documents. Or, this sounds like a good project for the trade associations that officials join, and for which taxpayers pay membership dues and fees.

Lobbyist says lower open records fees could threaten Kansans’ safety

By , March 19, 2014

COST CONSCIOUS: Opponents of a bill targeted at reducing the cost of acquiring public documents say it will eliminate a necessary revenue stream for many Kansas government entities.

By Travis Perry | Kansas Watchdog

TOPEKA, Kan. — According to Kansas law enforcement lobbyist Ed Klumpp, too much government transparency could be a bad thing.

Firing a verbal warning shot Wednesday morning against legislation sponsored by Pittsburg Republican Sen. Jacob La Turner, Klumpp said Senate Bill 10, which would lower the cost of accessing government documents in the Sunflower State, has the potential to dramatically affect public safety.

In contention is a provision within La Turner’s bill that would require public entities to provide free of charge either the first hour of staff time or 25 copies, whichever comes first, to individuals requesting public documents.

Klumpp suggested that preventing law enforcement agencies from charging for the most commonly requested documents, such as accident reports, would eliminate a key source of revenue to avoid diverting resources from elsewhere.

“It’ll be fewer dollars to buy police equipment, fewer dollars to put into investigations,” Klumpp told members of the House Federal and State Affairs committee.

LaTurner called the assumption utterly ridiculous, and stated that document retrieval fees have been a veritable cash cow for public entities for years.

“They’ll say anything to hold onto their funding sources, no matter how unfair,” LaTurner said.

The 90 minutes of testimony offered to House lawmakers in the Old Supreme Court Room took on an adversarial flair, with media and private citizens facing off against county and local government officials.

Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said he has seen time and again how public entities have used excessive fees to effectively close off public documents.

“If a private citizen cannot afford the record, it’s a closed record,” Anstaett said.

In that same vein, Albert Rukwaro, a journalist and Topeka resident formerly of Kenya, cautioned state lawmakers by pointing to widespread issues in his country of origin.

“One of the leading causes of runaway corruption in government and lack of accountability is when citizens don’t have access to information in the government sector,” Rukwaro said. “America’s democracy and transparency are a beacon of light to the world. Please don’t dim it.”

Elected officials from cash-strapped Kansas counties argue it’s a matter of fiscal feasibility.

Anna Morgan-Stanley, register of deeds for Jewell County, said the vast majority of requests she receives would fall under reduced fee requirements laid out in LaTurner’s bill. Last year, Stanley said she collected just over $2,000 in document retrieval fees, and that for Jewell County it’s about survival.

“When we are unable to recoup the costs of the copies and the staff time we’re providing them, that puts a burden on our already financially burdened general fund,” Stanley told lawmakers.

Republic County register of deeds Peggy Frint echoed similar sentiments. While proponents suggested the reduced cost measures would encourage governments to make more information available online, Frint said she simply doesn’t have the funds to accomplish such a feat.

“I realize that $1,200 in copy fees for a county is not much, but it’s better than nothing, and we need all the help we can get to put into our general fund,” Frint said.

Opponents stated that capping costs for individuals would simply impose the fees on the broader public.

“Somebody is going to pay. These costs don’t just go away,” Klumpp said. “Either it’s the people requesting the copy or the taxpayers across the community.”

Committee chair Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, closed the meeting by musing how it’s not too different from distributing the cost of public infrastructure.

“I understand there are certain roads in my city that I will never drive on, but my tax dollars will go to repair those roads,” Brunk said.

Senate Bill 10 was approved by the Kansas Senate 33-7 on Feb. 27. In addition to providing some open records free of charge, LaTurner’s bill would also limit the hourly fee a government could charge for various services, such as legal review by an attorney at no more than $60 per hour. See more details here.

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960

During Sunshine Week, here are a few things Wichita could do

Wichita City Budget Cover, 1960The City of Wichita says it values open and transparent government, but the city could improve several areas of providing information and records to citizens.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Attitude

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. Here’s perhaps the most glaring example of how the city goes out of its way to conduct public business in secret.

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each of these agencies refuses to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas law that’s designed to provide citizen access to records.

The city backs this interpretation. When legislation was introduced to bring these agencies under the umbrella of the Kansas Open Records Act, cities — including Wichita — protested vigorously, and the legislation went nowhere. Now, just this week the City of Wichita added a new tax to hotel bills that may generate $3 million per year for the convention and visitors bureau to spend. Unless the city changes its attitude towards citizens’ right to know, this money will be spent in secret.

Another example of the City of Wichita’s attitude towards citizens and open government took place at a Kansas Legislature committee hearing last year. I had asked for email to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. The response from the city was that my request would encompass some 19,000 email messages, and the city denied the request as too burdensome. Fair enough.

But the city’s lobbyist told legislators that my request for 19,000 emails was an example of abuse of the Kansas Open Records Act, and cited it as evidence as to why reform was not needed. But I did not request 19,000 email messages. I made a request for messages meeting a certain criteria, and I had no way of knowing in advance how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost for the city. No harm, no foul.

But the City of Wichita used this incident and a similar incident involving the Kansas Policy Institute as reasons that the Kansas Open Records Act needs no reform. This illustrates a problem with the attitude of Wichita city government towards citizens’ right to know.

This attitude may be noticed by the citizenry at large. Survey respondents were asked to rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.” The results are shown in the nearby chart created from data in the most recent version of the Wichita Performance Measure Report. The numbers are the percent of respondents giving “excellent” or “good” as their response to the question.

Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement."

Citizens rate “the job Wichita does at welcoming citizen involvement.”

The report says this performance is “much below” a benchmark set by the National Research Center National Citizen Survey.

Website

An important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. With the launching of the new City of Wichita website, the city has actually taken a step backwards in providing information to citizens.

From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.

From the former version of the City of Wichita website, showing budgets available for many years.

Here’s an example. The old city website had budgets going back a long way, back to the budget for 1960 — 1961. The oldest budget I can find on the present website is for 2006.

Looking for minutes of important boards such as the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, we find similar results. On the old website, minutes of MAPC were available back to 1999. The new version of the website seems to have minutes back to only 2012.

Also, something that had been very useful is missing, and hasn’t been replaced: MyWichita.

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As described here, MyWichita was a useful service. By using it, you could receive by email notices of new press releases, city council agendas and minutes, district advisory board agenda and minutes, agendas and minutes of other boards, and other items. Using MyWichita was much easier than having to check multiple sections of the city’s website looking for newly-released agendas, minutes, etc.

This email reminder service was very valuable. It’s a basic customer service feature of many commercial and governmental websites. But MyWichita didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing that replaces its function. When I asked about this missing functionality, the city said it was working on a replacement that should be available in a month or two. It’s been almost a year since I asked.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

Wichita spending data.

Wichita spending data.

Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city.

Publish requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

Kansas Open Records Act reform possible

This week a committee of the Kansas House of Representatives will hear testimony on SB 10, a bill which would make small but welcome reforms to the Kansas Open Records Act. Following is the testimony I plan to deliver. Citizens should be aware that cities, counties, and school districts will probably oppose these reforms.

Testimony to House Standing Committee on Federal and State Affairs as proponent of SB 10: Open meetings; minutes required; open records; charges limited.
Bob Weeks, March 19, 2014

Representative Brunk and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony on problems with the Kansas Open Records Act regarding high fees for the production of records. In 2008 I personally encountered this problem, as reported in the Wichita Eagle:

Open Records Requests Can Spell High Fees

(Wichita Eagle, March 9, 2008)

Want information from the governor’s office? Get ready to pay up. That’s what Wichita blogger Bob Weeks says he discovered when he requested four days’ worth of e-mails sent and received by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and her staff.

To get the records , he was told he’d have to pay a lawyer in the governor’s office $27 an hour, for 50 hours, to read the e-mails to make sure they aren’t exempt from disclosure. That and 25 cents a page for copies or an unspecified extra charge to get the e-mails in electronic form. “Please make your check for the amount of $1,350 payable to the state of Kansas and reference your open records request,” said a letter Weeks received from JaLynn Copp, assistant general counsel to the governor.

State Sen. Timothy Huelskamp, R-Fowler, said he was aware of Weeks’ case. He said he thinks the fees are excessive. “It doesn’t mean much for it to be an open record if you can’t afford it,” he said. In addition, he said a sluggish response to the request from the governor’s office appears to have violated the state Open Records Act. Huelskamp said the law requires state agencies to fulfill records requests within three business days or provide a detailed reason why that can’t be done. Weeks mailed his request on Feb. 7 and got an initial response Feb. 13. His cost estimate didn’t come until Feb. 26, and neither letter explained the delay, Huelskamp said. “It’s really in violation of the letter and the spirit of the law and I’ve seen that happen more than once,” he said.

Based on this and other experience, I have found it is difficult to obtain email records at reasonable cost. If one makes a very narrowly-defined request that is affordable, there is a chance that the request will not produce the desired documents. If the request is broad enough to catch the records one needs, it is likely to be very expensive.

Kansas could use as a model the federal Freedom of Information Act (5 USC § 552), which provides for a limit on fees in certain cases: “Fees shall be limited to reasonable standard charges for document duplication when records are not sought for commercial use and the request is made by an educational or noncommercial scientific institution, whose purpose is scholarly or scientific research; or a representative of the news media.” (emphasis added)

Please do not be alarmed by government representatives making claims of abuses. Last year the Senate Committee that heard testimony on this bill was told that I made a request for 19,000 emails. My actual request was for emails to or from a certain official for a certain period of time. I had no way of knowing how many email messages this would entail. The City of Wichita denied this request as burdensome, so there was either no cost or very little cost for the city.

Finally, I would ask that the committee note that government records belong to the people, not the government, and that the people paid for their creation. I have additional information about the Kansas Open Records Act and its problems at wichitaliberty.org.

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks
bob.weeks@gmail.com
wichitaliberty.org

city-council-chambers-sign-800

Wichita City Council to consider entrenching power of special interest groups

city-council-chambers-sign-800On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider a resolution in support of the status quo for city elections. Which is to say, the council will likely express its support for special interest groups whose goals are in conflict with the wellbeing of the public.

The proposed resolution expresses support for retaining the present system in which city council and school board members are elected in non-partisan elections held in the spring. Candidates for all other offices (county commissioner, district court judge, district attorney, county clerk, county treasurer, register of deeds, sheriff, state representative, state senator, governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, insurance commissioner, state board of education member, president, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, etc.) compete in partisan elections held in August and November.

Yes, the proposed resolution is full of language supporting lofty ideals. It mentions local control, concern over low voter turnout, the complexity of making changes, partisan politics, and even the Hatch Act, whatever that is.

(The Hatch Act restricts the ability of federal executive branch employees and certain state and local government employees to participate in some political activities, such as running for office in partisan elections. Non-partisan elections — that’s okay. The city is concerned that this could “disqualify many local candidates and office holders.” As if anyone already working for government also should also be an officeholder, non-partisan election or not.)

Why should we be concerned? Why would the city council support the current system of spring elections? Doesn’t the city council always act in the best interests of the body politic?

Here’s the answer, quite simply: In the spring elections, voter turnout is low. This makes it easier for special interest groups to influence the election outcomes. These special interest groups are not your friends (unless you are a member of one of the special groups).

Voter turnout is low in spring elections. Really low. I’ve gathered statistics for elections in Sedgwick County, and these numbers show that voter turnout in spring elections is much lower than in fall elections. (For these statistics I count the August primary as part of the fall election cycle.) Since 2000, turnout for fall elections, both primary and general, has been 44 percent. Over the same period, spring elections turnout has been 18 percent.

Remarkably, a special Wichita citywide election in February 2012 with just one question on the ballot had voter turnout of 13.7 percent. One year earlier, in April 2011, the spring general election had four of six city council districts contested and a citywide mayoral election. Turnout was 12.8 percent. That’s less than the turnout for a single-question election on year later.

The problem of low voter participation in off-cycle elections is not limited to Sedgwick County or Kansas. In her paper “Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups,” Sarah F. Anzia writes “A well developed literature has shown that the timing of elections matters a great deal for voter turnout. … When cities and school districts hold elections at times other than state and national elections, voter turnout is far lower than when those elections are held at the same time as presidential or gubernatorial elections.”

In the same paper, Anzia explains that when voter participation is low, it opens the door for special interest groups to dominate the election: “When an election is separated from other elections that attract higher turnout, many eligible voters abstain, but interest group members that have a large stake in the election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of the increase in the cost of voting. Moreover, interest groups’ efforts to strategically mobilize supportive voters have a greater impact on election outcomes when overall turnout is low. Consequently, the electoral influence of interest groups is greater in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. As a result, the policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to dominant interest groups than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections.” (Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups, Sarah F. Anzia, Stanford University, Journal of Politics, April 2011, Vol. 73 Issue 2, p 412-427, version online here.)

Moving the spring elections so they are held in conjunction with the fall state and national elections will help reduce the electoral power and influence of special interest groups.

An example of special interests influencing elections

In January 2013 candidates for Wichita City Council filed campaign finance reports covering calendar year 2012. That year was the ramp-up period for elections that were held in February and March 2013. Two filings in particular illustrate the need for campaign finance and election reform in Wichita and Kansas.

Two incumbents, both who had indicated their intent to run in the spring 2013 elections, received campaign contributions in 2012 from only two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren.

The incumbent candidates receiving these contributions are Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita).

Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents during an entire year. Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

You may be wondering: Do these two groups have an extraordinarily keen interest in Wichita city government that’s not shared by anyone else?

Yes they do, and it’s not benevolent. Both have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin. Both groups are symptomatic of the problem of special interests influencing low-turnout elections. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita for details.

Download (PDF, 76KB)

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WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s city tourism fee, Special taxes for special people

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Wichita City Council will hold a meeting regarding an industry that wants to tax itself, but really is taxing its customers. Also, the city may be skirting the law in holding the meeting. Then: The Kansas Legislature is considering special tax treatment for a certain class of business firms. What is the harm in doing this? Episode 35, broadcast March 16, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

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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.”

Kansas Judicial Center

We can predict the loser in the Kansas school lawsuit

The Kansas Supreme Court will hand down the school finance decision Friday.

The Kansas Supreme Court will hand down the school finance decision Friday.

No matter which side wins the Kansas school finance lawsuit, we already know who loses: Kansas schoolchildren. The last time schools won a suit, the state lowered its standards for schools.

Talking about school spending is easy, even though most Kansas public school spending advocates refuse to acknowledge the totality of spending. (Or if they acknowledge the total level, they may make excuses for the spending not being effective.) Advocating for more spending is easy. It’s easy because the Kansas Constitution says the state must spend on schools. Parents want more spending, and so do teachers, public employee unions, and children. It’s easy to support more spending on schools because anyone who doesn’t is demonized as anti-child, anti-education, and even anti-human.

But the focus on school spending lets the Kansas public school establishment off the hook too easily. Any and all shortcomings of Kansas schools can be blamed on inadequate funding. That’s what the establishment does.

The focus on school spending also keeps attention away from some unfortunate and unpleasant facts about Kansas schools that the establishment would rather not talk about. Kansas needs to confront these facts for the sake of Kansas schoolchildren. If the court orders more spending and the legislature complies, not much is likely to improve, but the public school establishment will say everything that’s wrong has been fixed.

The focus on spending

First, citizens are generally misinformed on Kansas school spending. In surveys, most people usually guess that schools spend less than half of the correct amount. It’s a problem not only in Kansas; it’s a nationwide issue.

Then, there is a tenuous connection between increased school spending and better student outcomes. Many studies point out the rapid rise in school spending over the decades, but test scores are flat.

Even liberal think tanks realize the school class size is not an important factor.

Even liberal think tanks realize the school class size is not an important factor.

Public school spending advocates say that increased spending will allow smaller class sizes. But class size reduction is very expensive and produces only marginal benefits compared to other strategies. The Center for American Progress — normally in favor of anything that increases government spending — wrote this in its 2011 report The False Promise of Class-Size Reduction

The evidence on class size indicates that smaller classes can, in some circumstances, improve student achievement if implemented in a focused way. But CSR [class size reduction] policies generally take exactly the opposite approach by pursuing across-the-board reductions in class size at the state or federal level. These large-scale, untargeted policies are also extremely expensive and represent wasted opportunities to make smarter educational investments. Large-scale CSR policies clearly fail any cost-benefit test because they entail steep costs and produce benefits that are modest at best.

The CAP report tells readers what does work to improve student outcomes:

Researchers agree that teacher quality is the single most important in-school determinant of how much students learn. Stanford economist Eric A. Hanushek has estimated that replacing the worst 5 percent to 8 percent of teachers with average teachers would dramatically boost achievement in the United States.

KNEA: There are no bad teachers.

KNEA: There are no bad teachers.

But Kansas ranks low in policies regarding teacher quality. The current lawsuit doesn’t address issues like teacher quality or other specific reforms that will actually help Kansas schoolchildren. By the way, the Kansas National Education Association (KNEA) believes there are no bad teachers.

What Kansas did after the last lawsuit

Consider what Kansas did the last time schools won a lawsuit: The state lowered its school standards. Simply put, Kansas didn’t have rigorous standards for its schools, and it lowered them after the last court decision.

national-center-education-statistics-state-mapping-naep

The National Center for Education Statistics produces a report titled Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales. (NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations, and is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.)

The mapping project establishes a relationship between the tests each state gives to assess its students and the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test that is the same in all states. The conclusion of NCES is that Kansas school standards are relatively low, compared to other states. This video explains. (View below, or click here to view in HD at YouTube.)

For Kansas, here are some key findings. First, NCES asks this question: “How do Kansas’s NAEP scale equivalent scores of reading standards for proficient performance at grades 4 and 8 in 2009 compare with those estimated for 2005 and 2007?”

For Kansas, the two answers are this (emphasis added):

“Although no substantive changes in the reading assessments from 2007 to 2009 were indicated by the state, the NAEP scale equivalent of both its grade 4 and grade 8 standards decreased.

Also: “Kansas made substantive changes to its reading grade 8 assessment between 2005 and 2009, and the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 8 standards decreased.

In other words, NCES judged that Kansas weakened its standards for reading performance.

A similar question was considered for math: “How do Kansas’s NAEP scale equivalent scores of mathematics standards for proficient performance at grades 4 and 8 in 2009 compare with those estimated for 2005 and 2007?”

For Kansas, the two answers are this (emphasis added):

“Although no substantive changes in the mathematics assessments from 2007 to 2009 were indicated by the state, the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 8 standards decreased (the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 4 standards did not change).”

Also: “Kansas made substantive changes to its mathematics grade 4 assessment between 2005 and 2009, but the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 4 standards did not change.”

For mathematics, NCES judges that some standards were weakened, and some did not change.

In its summary of Kansas reading standards, NCES concluded: “In both grades, Kansas state assessment results showed more positive changes in achievement than NAEP results.” For mathematics, the summary reads: “In grade 4, Kansas state assessment results showed a change in achievement that is not different from that based on NAEP results. In grade 8, state assessment results showed a more positive change.”

In other words: In three of four instances, Kansas is claiming positive student achievement that isn’t apparent on national tests.

Following are two examples of charts from the NCES study where Kansas school standards rank compared to other states. Click on them for larger versions.

Kansas Grade 4 Reading Standards

Kansas Grade 4 Math Standards 01

money-bag-struggle

Special interests struggle to keep special tax treatment

Detail of stairway in Kansas Capitol.

Detail of stairway in Kansas Capitol.

When a legislature is willing to grant special tax treatment, it sets up a battle to keep — or obtain — that status. Once a special class acquires preferential treatment, others will seek it too.

When preferential tax treatment is granted, that is, when government says someone doesn’t have to pay taxes, it’s usually the case that someone else has to pay. That’s because governmental bodies usually don’t reduce their spending in response to the tax breaks they give. Spending stays the same (or rises), but someone isn’t paying their share. Therefore, others have to make up the missing tax revenue.

In Kansas, SB 72 has been passed by the Senate and may be considered by the House of Representatives. This bill would, according to its supplemental note “provide a property or ad valorem tax exemption on all property owned and operated by a health club.” In effect, this bill would give all health clubs the same property tax exemption that the YMCA enjoys on its fitness centers.

When the legislature uses tax law to achieve goals, the statute book becomes complicated as illustrated by the many special sales tax exemptions in Kansas. K.S.A. 79-3606 details the special sales tax exemptions that the legislature has granted. In order to list them all, the statute has sections labeled from (a) through (z), then from (aa) through (zz), then from (aaa) through (zzz), and finally from (aaaa) through (gggg).

Some of these sections are needed and valuable, such as the section that exempts manufacturers from paying sales tax on component parts and ingredients used to build final products. It is supposed to be a retail sales tax, after all.

But then there are sections like this: “(vv) (18) the Ottawa Suzuki Strings, Inc., for the purpose of providing students and families with education and resources necessary to enable each child to develop fine character and musical ability to the fullest potential.”

I have no doubt that this organization is engaged in useful work and that there should be more of this. But what about all the other organizations engaged in similar activities, and which are undoubtedly as deserving of the same tax break? Should they be penalized because they did not have the temerity to ask?

In the area of property taxation, we find many similar circumstances, where two businesses that seem to be similarly situated are treated very differently by the tax collector.

For example, Wesley Medical Center, one of Wichita’s principal hospitals, is Wichita’s second-largest property taxpayer, with taxable assessed value representing 0.90 percent of the total of such property in Wichita.

One hospital has many millions in property, but is not taxed on that property.

One hospital has many millions in property, but is not taxed on that property.

But another large Wichita Hospital, Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, has assets valued at over $115 million, yet pays no property tax. For the mill levy rate that applies to its address, this represents about $3.5 million in property tax savings. (It did pay a Sedgwick County Solid Waste User Fee of $8.91.)

How can we meaningfully distinguish between Wesley and St. Francis Hospitals? Does one provide more charity care than the other? Does the non-profit hospital charge lower rates? (I’d be surprised if so.) Does St. Francis impose less of a burden on city and county resources such as fire and police protection than does Wesley? Since Wesley attempts to earn a profit and St. Francis purportedly does not, does that make Wesley evil and St. Francis saintly? Why do we exempt St. Francis from millions of property tax, yet insist it pay $8.91 in solid waste user fees?

A scene from a non-profit retirement living center.

A scene from a non-profit retirement living center.

We find other examples: A luxury retirement community (Larksfield Place) with real property valued at $27,491,440 pays no property tax, except for $5.95 in the solid waste user fee. Less than a mile away, Sedgwick Plaza, a senior living center, has a valuation of $5,067,350 for its real property, and was billed $70,080.51 in property tax, including its solid waste user fee of $972. Despite — or perhaps due to — its non-profit status, Larksfield Place is able to provide its president a salary of over $130,000.

A Goodwill thrift store on West Central in Wichita has real property valued at $696,600, but paid no property taxes except for $5.94 solid waste user fee. On the other side of town, a small thrift store on East Douglas has real property valued at $113,800. It pays $3,437 in property tax, including its solid waste user fee.

These differences in what seem to be properties in similar situations are not justifiable under any theory of taxation, one of which is that similar situations are taxed similarly. The YMCA’s fitness centers are difficult to distinguish from others in Wichita — except for the YMCA’s rarefied tax-exempt status.

The slippery slope

Here’s the danger: Should SB 72 pass and all health clubs start enjoying the same tax privileges as the YMCA, shouldn’t we then expect to see for-profit hospitals like Wesley Medical Center ask to be relieved of their tax burden, using the same logic? If the legislature were to deny that request, how could it possibly explain its reasoning to citizens?

In defense of its tax exempt status, the YMCA says it engages in many charitable activities. I’m sure that’s true, and we’d like to keep those activities. Perhaps the YMCA would consider separating its fitness centers from the rest of its operations. Separate the business-like activities from the charitable. The YMCA can use the “profits” from its fitness centers to finance its charitable activities. To the extent it does that, it will avoid paying state and federal income tax on its profits.

But property taxes are something different from income taxes. The YMCA benefits from all the things the city (and other taxing jurisdictions) provide, ranging from public safety to schools to security for the mayor’s trip to Ghana. When it doesn’t pay its share, others have to pay. That means that others — you and me, for example — have less money available for the charitable (and other) activities they feel important. Even worse, I am forced to subsidize the charitable activities that the YMCA (or the Methodist Church, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, etc.) chooses to fund. This is especially true in Kansas, where low-income households pay a regressive sales tax on food.

When the YMCA — or any non-profit, for that matter — escapes taxation that other similar organizations must pay, it means that we all subsidize the charitable activities of these non-profits. It sustains a system in which special interest groups lobby to keep their advantages, and those who are not similarly blessed spend lavishly on campaign contributions and other lobbyists. Even when the organization is widely respected, as is the YMCA, this is wrong. It leads to cynicism as citizens realize that our laws are not applied uniformly, and that special interests feel they can buy their way to special treatment.

For their business-like activities, the YMCA, Larksfield Place, and Goodwill thrift stores should pay property taxes so they shoulder the same burden that the rest of us struggle under. That will spread the cost of government fairly, and let ordinary people themselves decide how to contribute their after-tax dollars.

WichitaLiberty.TV.20

WichitaLiberty.TV February 23, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: There are efforts to have the Kansas Legislature expand the open records law to include the spending records of several taxpayer-funded agencies, but the City of Wichita wants to keep the records secret. Then, did you know the Kansas teachers union has a media response team? Finally, Arthur Brooks makes the moral case for free enterprise. Episode 32, broadcast February 23, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

File folder and documents

Kansas Open Records Act and the ‘public agency’ definition

Update: The bill has been referred to another committee, and the February 19 hearing is canceled.

File folder and documents

Despite the City of Wichita’s support for government transparency, citizens have to ask the legislature to add new law forcing the city and its agencies to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act.

Open records laws allow citizens to ask government agencies for records. While these laws are valuable, we find that in practice governmental agencies find many ways to avoid filling records requests. Because the City of Wichita does not live up to the standards of open government — even through it proclaims its support for government transparency — citizens are working to have the law changed.

Locally, the City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Contrary to what the mayor and manager say, when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. That’s a problem, because citizen watchdogs and journalists need access to records and data.

The City of Wichita has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: At the time I made my records request, its percent of revenue derived from taxes was well over 90 percent in every year but one. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter at my request, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position.

So what is the next step? The Kansas Attorney General is of no help in this matter. His office refers all cases to the local District Attorney. That’s a problem right there, and there is some talk that the AG may open a small bureau to work with records requests problems.

One course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit. The irony of this is that citizens will find their own tax dollars being used against them as the city and other agencies defend secrecy.

Another course of action is persuading the city and these agencies to release the records. While these agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to. That would be in line with what the mayor and city manager say they want for Wichita. I and others have tried that.

But that didn’t work. The true attitude of the city was expressed eloquently by Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner last month in a television news story about the inability of citizens to see how their money is being spent by these organizations. Meitzner said “The public doesn’t need to know about day-to-day spending.”

The vice mayor also told the reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

Another course of action is to change the law, and that’s what I and others are trying to do. This week a committee of the Kansas House of Representatives will hear testimony on HB 2567, which will expand the definition of public agency.

The current law says this in defining what agencies are subject to the open records law: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The proposed law contains this additional definition: “Further, on and after July 1, 2014, ‘public agency’ shall include any nonprofit organization supported in whole or in part by public funds, which organizations are engaged in economic development, tourism or general marketing activities for the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof.”

This language, if passed into law, would appear to bring the three problematic agencies under the Kansas Open Records Act. That doesn’t mean that they’ll have to turn over all and any records that are asked for, as the Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions. But we should be able to get spending data and other records that will help citizens oversee the operation of their government and the spending of tax dollars.

It’s a little distressing that citizens have to pass new legislation in order to get government to behave well. Citizens have to resort to these measures even though city leaders say they value open and transparent government.

Following is the testimony I will deliver this week.

Testimony to house of Representatives Committee on Judiciary as proponent of HB 2567, concerning public records.
Bob Weeks, February 19, 2014

Chairman Kinzer and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present testimony in support of HB 2567, regarding the Kansas Open Records Act.

Cities and other local governmental bodies have set up non-profit organizations to conduct business such as economic development. These agencies, as in the case of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, may in some years receive as much as 98 percent of their revenue from taxation. They often have only one client, that being the governmental agency that provides their tax revenue. They perform functions that are governmental in nature. Yet the Sedgwick County District Attorney says they are not public agencies for purposes of the Kansas Open Records Act. Based on that, these agencies, particularly the WDDC, have refused to fulfill my records requests. This flies in the face of the Legislature’s declared intent in the preamble of the Act: “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.”

There can be large amounts of money involved. The City of Wichita may soon add a 2.75 percent tax to hotel bills as a “City Tourism Fee.” These new taxpayer-provided funds, estimated at $2.5 million per year, would be spent by Go Wichita Convention and Tourism Bureau. This agency, despite receiving nearly all its revenue from taxation, maintains that it is not a public agency as defined by the Kansas Open Records Act. It refused to fulfill my records request.

Citizen watchdogs and journalists need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

Recently the vice mayor of Wichita told a television news reporter that these organization have review boards. Therefore, citizen oversight is not necessary. These boards, however, are usually filled with insiders whose interests may not be aligned with the interests of citizens and promoting good government.

There is much that Kansas can, and should do, to strengthen its Open Records Law to give citizen watchdogs and journalists better access to records and documents. Restricting the ability of local governments to erect a protective wall under the guise of non-profit corporations that are almost totally funded by taxation is an important step.

I have additional information about the Kansas Open Records Act and its problems at wichitaliberty.org/open-records.

Respectfully submitted,
Bob Weeks

Medicaid expansion: The impact on the federal budget and deficit

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Medicaid Expansion: The Impact on the Federal Budget and Deficit

By Steve Anderson

Medicaid.gov Keeping America HealthyThe problem with the uninsured is not going to be solved by expanding Medicaid. Even amongst Medicaid’s staunchest proponents you’ll be hard pressed to find any who will claim it to be the equivalent of high quality private health insurance coverage. The number of federal senators and representatives that choose to exclude their staffers from Obamacare shows that many Washington politicians understand the quality of government insurance plans Medicaid and Obamacare represent. The simple fact is, that health insurance is not to be confused with health care.

Medicaid’s proponents can only claim anecdotal claims of improving health outcomes of recipients. Even in pre-ObamaCare Medicaid, beneficiaries largely do not access available preventable care services. In fact, a Harvard University study shows that emergency room visits actually increased by 40 percent for Medicaid recipients in Oregon after their expansion. Citizens would do well to remember, a “decrease in ER visits” was a key selling point of ObamaCare generally and Medicaid expansion specifically. ER visits are the most expensive form of care. When these increased visits are paid for by Medicaid, the taxpayers are picking up BOTH the state and federal portion of the high cost of emergency room visits. This flies in the face of the Obama Administration’s claim that Medicaid expansion would actually save money by limiting this sort of behavior.

It doesn’t stop there and this is the part that hardly anyone has mentioned, and what the Obama Administration would rather you not know — a staggering number of those enrolling in ObamaCare will actually be sent to Medicaid and not be in the private market. And by “private market” we mean one established and controlled by government.

The following charts are the pre-Medicaid expansion projection of revenues versus expenditures from the Congressional Budget Office. They were completed before the decision by 25 states and the District of Columbia to expand eligibility.i

The three lines with the steepest slopes and therefore the fastest growing expenditures are Medicaid, Unemployment payments (called Income Security) and Other Programs. The U.S. House of Representatives has addressed the unemployment expense growth by bringing the program back to its original intent – to provide a safety net between jobs. Other Programs will be largely controlled if current trends hold and extension of the various “stimulus” programs are curtailed. However, the one that is going to accelerate with expansion and is larger than the other two combined in total state and federal expenditures is Medicaid. At least 3.9 million of Obamacare participants are expected to be enrolled in Medicaid and 19 million nationwide overall will be added to Medicaid in the next year. A 35 percent increase in Medicaid participants.ii Picture these two charts with 35 percent greater additional costs for the Medicaid entitlement and you have an idea how problematic this is for the federal budget and deficit. Is it any wonder that President Obama has started to back track from the claim that the federal government—which let’s not forget, is funded by you the taxpayer — will pay all the costs for 3 years and 90 percent thereafter. Instead, his administration and he himself talk about blended rates that will transfer a sizeable portion of the cost to state budgets.iii Despite his promises to the contrary.

The Impact on the Kansas State Budget

Even the leftist Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which typically finds spending citizens’ tax dollars an event to celebrate, is cautioning that the “blended rate” shift by the President will “likely prompt states to cut payments to health care providers and to scale back the health services that Medicaid covers for low-income children, parents, people with disabilities, and/or senior citizens (including those in nursing homes). Reductions in provider payments would likely exacerbate the problem that Medicaid beneficiaries already face regarding access to physician care, particularly from specialists.”iv This analysis actually left out the administrative cost of expansion that is largely being absorbed by the states. If anything, this suggests that reality will be more dire than CBPP’s predictions.

KPI’s own cost study of Medicaid expansion, conducted by a sitting member of the Social Security Advisory Board and former chief economist at the Federal Reserve in Cleveland, shows that Kansas taxpayers can expect to pick a $600 million tab if Medicaid is expanded. Hardly the “free money” that the Kansas Hospital Association has tried to foist on your family. They’ve even hired a former George W. Bush cabinet secretary to aggressively lobby for this “free money.” They’ve also yet to explain what services they recommend the state cut to fund the expansion and if their members are willing to pick up the additional costs when “blended rates” almost certainly take effect.

As a taxpayer you are going to pay for this on both the federal and state level and you deserve answers when any special interest groups come asking for more of your money.

http://directorblue.blogspot.com/2011/01/liberals-democrat-party-will-split-if.html
ii http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-02/obamacare-s-medicaid-expansion-may-create-oregon-like-er-strain.htm
iii http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3521
iv Ibid

Voice for Liberty Radio: Kansas legislative reforms

Voice for Liberty logo with microphone 150

In this episode of WichitaLiberty Radio: Kansas Representative John Rubin has proposed two reforms to legislative procedure at the Kansas Capitol that, I believe, would improve the process. The first concerns granularity, that is, considering a group of bills (actually conference reports) with a single vote. The second simply asks that all non-trivial votes be recorded and made available to the public. Here’s Representative Rubin speaking in Topeka on January 16 at the Tenth Amendment Dinner.

This is podcast episode number 5, released on January 23, 2014.

Shownotes

John Rubin
The Rubin rule
The Rubin rule at Political Chips. This page tracks members’ positions on the Rubin rule.
Legislative procedure in Kansas

The death penalty in Kansas, a conservative view

What should the attitude of conservatives be regarding the death penalty? Ben Jones of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty spoke on the topic “Capital Punishment in Kansas from a conservative perspective: Is it a failed policy?” This was recorded at the Wichita Pachyderm Club on December 6, 2013. Jennifer Baysinger provided the introduction. Click here to listen.

Kansas legislative briefing book for 2014

Kansas CapitolKansas Legislative Research has released the 2014 edition of the Legislator Briefing Book. From the prelude:

Kansas Legislators are called upon to make decisions on many issues that come before the Legislature. In addition, members of the Legislature are frequently asked by constituent groups to discuss public policy issues in a community forum in their districts. The purpose of the Kansas Legislator Briefing Book is to assist members in making informed policy decisions and to provide information in a condensed form that is usable for discussions with constituents — whether in their offices in Topeka or in their districts.

This publication contains several reports on new topics plus reports from the prior version. Most of the reports from the prior version have been updated with new information.

This year the book is 411 pages in length. The original location of the document is here. Or, for a version that will probably work better on mobile devices, click here to view this document at Scribd.

WichitaLiberty.TV January 19, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: How much would you pay to visit the Wichita Art Museum? You might be surprised to learn how much each visit really costs. Then: A transparency agenda for Wichita city government and the Kansas Legislature. Finally, a look at public schools wasting money. Episode 28, broadcast January 19, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Kansas legislative documents

Kansas Capitol

As the Kansas Legislature begins its 2014 session today, citizens who want to keep track of the happenings have these resources available.

Video and audio

The Kansas Legislature doesn’t broadcast or archive video of its proceedings except in rare instances of committee hearings. Travis Perry of Kansas Watchdog reports on this issue in Camera shy: KS legislators sidestep transparency and Eye in the sky: Kansas legislative leader won’t require streaming video.

Both the House and Senate broadcast audio of their proceedings. But you must listen live, as the broadcasts are not made available to the public in any other way. It would be exceedingly simple to make these past broadcasts available to the public. It could be done at no cost on YouTube, and at little cost at other sites specifically tailored to host audio. As a side benefit, at YouTube the recordings would be transcribed by machine, giving a rough transcript of the proceedings. (I use the adjective “rough,” as if you have viewed these transcripts, they vary widely in accuracy. But they still have value.)

Broadcasting video of House and Senate proceedings would be a large step that would probably have a large cost. But archiving the audio and making it available provides nearly all the benefit of video, and at very little additional cost.

Documents

Kansas Legislative Research Department (KLRD) has many documents that are useful in understanding state government and the legislature. This agency’s home page is Kansas Legislative Research Department. Of particular interest:

Kansas Legislative Briefing Book. This book’s audience is legislators, but anyone can benefit. The book has a chapter for major areas of state policy and legislation, giving history, background, and explanations of law. In some years the entire collection of material has been made available as a single pdf file, but not so this year. Contact information for the legislative analysts is made available in each chapter. The most recent version can be found on the Reports and Publications page. So far a version for 2014 is not available. (Update: The 2014 version is here.)

Kansas Fiscal Facts. This book, in 124 pages (for 2011), provides “basic budgetary facts” to those without budgetary experience. It provides an overview of the budget, and then more information for each of the six branches of Kansas state government. There is a glossary and contact information for the fiscal analysts responsible for different areas of the budget. This document is updated each year. The most recent version can be found on the Reports and Publications page.

Legislative Procedure in Kansas. This book of 236 pages holds the rules and explanations of how the Kansas Legislature works. It was last revised in November 2006, but the subject that is the content of this book changes slowly over the years. The direct link is Legislative Procedure in Kansas, November 2006.

How a Bill Becomes Law. This is a one-page diagram of the legislative steps involved in passing laws. The direct link is How a Bill Becomes Law.

Summary of Legislation. This document is created each year, and is invaluable in remembering what laws were passed each year. From its introduction: “This publication includes summaries of the legislation enacted by the 2011 Legislature. Not summarized are bills of a limited, local, technical, clarifying, or repealing nature, and bills that were vetoed (sustained).” 204 pages for 2011. The most recent version can be found on the Reports and Publications page.

Legislative Highlights. This is a more compact version of the Summary of Legislation, providing the essentials of the legislative session in 12 pages for 2011. The most recent version can be found on the Reports and Publications page.

Kansas Tax Facts. This book provides information on state and local taxes in Kansas. The most recent version can be found on the Revenue and Tax page.

Kansas Statutes. The laws of our state. The current statutes can be found at the Revisor of Statutes page.

Kansas Register. From the Kansas Secretary of State: “The Kansas Register is the official state newspaper. This publication provides a wide range of information such as proposed and adopted administrative regulations, new state laws, bond sales and redemptions, notice of open meetings, state contracts offered for bid, attorney general opinions, and many other public notices.” The Register is published each week, and may be found at Kansas Register.

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?

Two legislative reforms that would benefit Kansans

Kansas Legislature

Following is a letter to legislators from Kansas Representative John Rubin regarding two reforms to legislative procedure that, I believe, would improve the process. The first concerns granularity, that is, considering a group of bills (actually conference reports) with a single vote. The second simply asks that all non-trivial votes be recorded and made available to the public.

As many of you know, I have always been and remain an ardent advocate of full transparency and accountability to the voters who have elected us to serve in the Legislature and to all the citizens of Kansas. I believe our oath of office demands no less. In my view, effective and responsible governance demands that we always cast informed votes, and that we always disclose to our constituents and all Kansans how we vote on the public policies that so profoundly affect their lives.

In my mind, our longstanding legislative practices of bundling multiple bills in a single conference committee report for one vote under the Joint Rules, and of not recording our votes on bills, resolutions and amendments in the Committee of the Whole on General Orders under the House Rules, directly contravene our obligation to the people of Kansas to be fully informed on the matters on which we vote, and to be transparent in and accountable for our votes, factors critical to effective governance. Accordingly, I have drafted two resolutions amending the Joint Rules and House Rules, respectively, to correct these undemocratic legislative practices. I plan to prefile them the week before our 2014 session starts. I am asking for your support, and hopefully your co-sponsorship, of both.

The first initiative, Revisor draft 14rs2664, is a Concurrent Resolution amending the Joint Rules to provide that a conference committee report (CCR) may contain only the bill being conferenced and all or part of one other bill that has passed either Chamber during the current biennium. As you know, current practice allows for an unlimited number of additional bills or parts of bills that have been passed by either Chamber to be added to the bill being conferenced, and we members have one vote on the entire CCR package on the floor. It is not unusual for as many as four, six, eight or more bills to be added to a conferenced bill in a CCR. Unless a member serves on the committee from which the bills have emanated — and perhaps not even then — the member has little if any opportunity to fully inform himself or herself of the contents, consequences or effects of the additional bills, particularly if the added bills did not originate in and were not debated in our Chamber, and particularly under the pressing time constraints we experience late in session, when most of these CCRs are considered. Accordingly, the likelihood that most members are even marginally well informed on the votes we are asked to east on these multi-bundled CCRs is slim. Worse, even if we do inform ourselves on all aspects of all bundled bills in such CCRs, we may well be of two minds regarding how to cast our one vote on it. For example, a member may fully support four of the bundled bills in an eight-bundle CCR because they square with the member’s principles and are, in his or her view, good public policy for the member’s constituents and all Kansans, and he or she may oppose the other four because they are not. In short, current practice virtually ensures that members often cast uninformed or unprincipled votes on much of the public policy contained in multi-bundled CCRs. That is no way to govern. Concurrent Resolution 14rs2664 will correct these irresponsible and undemocratic legislative deficiencies.

If you support and wish to co-sponsor this anti-bundling Concurrent Resolution, please email Revisor Gordon Self at Gordon.Self@rs.ks.gov by January 6, 2014 and inform him of your intent to do so, referencing the Concurrent Resolution draft, 14rs2664. Your name will be added to the Concurrent Resolution as a co-sponsor prior to prefiling it the week of January 6, 2014.

The second initiative, Revisor draft 14rs2668, is a House Resolution amending the House Rules to require that all House floor votes, whether in the Committee of the Whole on General Orders or on Final Action, shall be recorded votes. The only exceptions are for procedural votes such as on motions to recess or adjourn, motions to rise and report, or resolutions pertaining to commendations or acknowledgments. As you know, current practice on General Orders is that all votes on bills, resolutions and amendments are voice votes, or, on a division call, unrecorded electronic votes, absent a show of 15 hands requiring a roll call vote. Make no mistake — those “unrecorded” electronic division votes are in fact being recorded outside our chamber and in the House Gallery, by handwritten notes, camera phones directed to the closed circuit television screen, and otherwise, by government officials, lobbyists, and other political insiders vested in the outcomes of these votes. I believe that the citizens who sent us to Topeka should have the same access to these vote results that political insiders do. Moreover, all Kansans are, in my view, entitled to know how we vote on every public policy question put to us — in bills, amendments and resolutions — not just on Final Action, but preliminarily on General Orders as well — and are entitled to know whether, and ask why, we changed our vote on a measure between the Committee of the Whole vote one day, and Final Action on the same measure the next. I believe that our oath of office and our responsibility to be transparent in our votes and accountable to the people of Kansas for them require no less.

If you support and wish to co-sponsor this House Resolution requiring that all substantive House floor votes be recorded, please email Revisor Gordon Self at Gordon.Self@rs.ks.gov by January 6, 2014 and inform him of your intent to do so, referencing the Concurrent Resolution draft, 14rs2668. Your name will be added to the Resolution as a co-sponsor prior to prefiling it the week of January 6, 2014.

Thank you for your serious consideration and possible support of these two important resolutions promoting accountability and transparency in our work in the Kansas Legislature on behalf of the citizens of Kansas.

WichitaLiberty.TV January 12, 2014

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: A look at Wichita’s legislative agenda that the city will work for in the upcoming Kansas legislative session. Then: Wichita city leaders are likely to ask for higher taxes to pay for a new convention center. Is this a wise course for economic development? Episode 27, broadcast January 12, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

New York Times on Kansas schools, again

new-york-times-logo

The New York Times — again — intervenes in Kansas schools. As it did last October, the newspaper makes serious errors in its facts and recommendations.

An op-ed in the New York Times is being used by the Kansas public school spending establishment as evidence for the need to increase school spending in Kansas. (What’s the Matter With Kansas’ Schools?, January 8, 2014) The authors are David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, and Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Before Kansas schoolchildren celebrate that the nation’s newspaper of record has taken up their case, let’s examine some of the claims and reasoning used by these authors.

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

The op-ed makes this claim: “Overall, the Legislature slashed public education funding to 16.5 percent below the 2008 level.” Claims like this look only at base state aid per pupil funding, which is just part of total spending. Total state aid per pupil this past school year was $6,984. Base state aid per pupil was $3,838. Total state spending, therefore, was 1.82 times base state aid.

It’s important to consider the totality of spending and not just base state aid. It’s important because total spending is so much greater than base state aid. Also, total spending accounts for some of the difficulties and expenses that schools cite when asking for higher spending. For example, advocates for higher school spending often point to non-English speaking students and at-risk students as being expensive to educate. In recognition of this, the Kansas school finance formula makes allowances for this. According to the Kansas Legislator Briefing Book for 2013, the weighting for “full-time equivalent enrollment in bilingual education programs” is 0.395. This means that for each such student a school district has, an additional 39.5 percent over base state aid is given to the district.

For at-risk pupils, the weighting is 0.456. At risk students, according to the briefing book, “are determined on the basis of at-risk factors determined by the school district board of education and not by virtue of eligibility for free meals.” Taken together, bilingual students considered to be at-risk generate an additional 85.1 percent of base state aid to be sent to the district, per student.

The decline in base state aid per pupil is a convenient fact for public school spending boosters. They can use a statistic that contains a grain of truth in order to whip up concern over inadequate school spending. They can cite this as an argument for increasing spending, even though spending has been rising.

Further, citing only base state aid reduces “sticker shock.” Most people are surprised to learn that our schools spend $12,781 per student. It’s much easier to tell taxpayers that only $3,838 was spent. But that’s not a complete picture, not by far. For more on this, see Kansas school spending holding steady and Kansas school spending, by district.

The Times op-ed also states “Class sizes have increased, teachers and staff members have been laid off.” But statistics show that school employment has rebounded, both in terms of absolute numbers of teachers and certified employees, and also in the ratios of students to these employees. This video explains.

The story is not the same in every district. But considering the entire state, two trends emerge. 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).

The Times continues: “The judges also found that the Legislature was not meeting even the basic funding amounts set in its own education cost studies.” We shouldn’t rely on these documents. See Suitable education in Kansas. The primary study that Kansas relies upon is defective in this way, according to testimony from Kansas Policy Institute: “Augenblick & Myers (A&M) openly admitted that they deliberately deviated from their own Successful Schools methodology and delivered artificially high spending numbers by ignoring efficient use of taxpayer money. Amazingly, the Montoy courts still based their rulings on ‘evidence’ that was known to be worthless. And now the Shawnee County District Court is following that legal precedent in its ruling on Gannon.

The Times also writes “A victory for the parents would be heartening” and “Kansans rightfully take pride in their strong public school system.”

Talking about school spending is easy, although the Times, like most Kansas newspapers, doesn’t tell its readers the full story on spending. Advocating for more spending is easy. It’s easy because the Kansas Constitution says the state must spend on schools, parents want more spending, teachers want it, public employee unions want it. It’s easy to want more spending on schools because anyone who doesn’t is branded as anti-child, anti-education, anti-human.

But the focus on school spending lets the Kansas public school establishment off the hook too easily. Any and all shortcomings of Kansas schools can be blamed on inadequate funding, and that’s what happens.

The focus on school spending also keeps attention away from some unfortunate and unpleasant facts about Kansas schools that the establishment would rather not talk about. Kansas needs to confront these facts for the sake of Kansas schoolchildren. Editorials like this in the New York Times are very harmful to Kansas schoolchildren, because if the editorial’s recommendation is taken, not much is likely to improve, but the public school establishment 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? Does the New York Times editorial board know this?

A transparency agenda for Wichita

Wichita City Hall

Kansas has a weak open records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Wichita logic open records
But when we look at some specific areas of government transparency, we find that the city’s efforts are deficient. Below are a few areas in which the city could improve. Much more is available here: Open government in Kansas

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “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.

In reality, Kansas has a weak open records law. Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. But with a simple change of attitude towards open government and citizens’ right to know, Wichita could live up to the goals its leaders have set.

Attitude

Citizen watchdogs need access to records and data. The City of Wichita, however, has created several not-for-profit organizations that are controlled by the city and largely funded by tax money. The three I am concerned with are the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

I have asked each organization for checkbook-level spending data. Each has refused to comply, using the reasoning that they are not “public agencies” as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But consider the WDDC: In every year but one, its percent of revenue derived from taxes is well over 90 percent. In many years the only income WDDC received was from taxes and a small amount of interest earned. Click here to see how much of WDDC’s revenue comes from taxes.

The Wichita city attorney backs these organizations and their interpretation of the law. So do almost all city council members. After 14 months investigating this matter, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city’s position. (Click here to read the determination.) The only course of action open to me as a citizen watchdog is to raise thousands of dollars to fund a lawsuit.

There is one other course of action, however. That is, these agencies and the city could fulfill the records requests that I have made. These agencies believe the law doesn’t require them to release the records, but the law does not prohibit or restrict releasing the records. They could fulfill requests if they wanted to, which goes back to the attitude of the city. For more, see Wichita, again, fails at open government.

Citizen watchdogs and others need the ability to examine the spending of tax money. When government creates quasi-governmental bodies that are almost totally funded through taxes and then refuses to disclose how that money is spent, we have to wonder why the city doesn’t want citizens to know how this money is spent.

An example of why this is important is the case of Mike Howerter, a trustee of Labette Community College in Parsons. He noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Upon his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political campaign contribution. While the college president committed no violation by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

Website

The most important way governments can communicate with their subjects is through their websites. Wichita moved to a new website early in 2013. While the former website had its share of problems — such as a search feature that didn’t work very well — the new website has been a step backwards.

For example, it appears that for citizen review boards like the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Board, agendas and minutes prior to 2012 did not survive the conversion to the new website. Other documents that were previously available but appear to be missing after the conversion include the daily arrest reports. It appears that only a few years of past budgets are available, but the comprehensive annual financial reports are available for about ten years back. (If I missed any documents that are actually available, I apologize. But the fact that I couldn’t find them is its own problem.)

The prior website had a service called “MyWichita.” This was a very useful service. After registration, citizens could see a list of documents and check the types of documents for which they’d like to receive notification when newly available, such as meeting agenda and minutes. This email reminder service was very valuable. It didn’t survive the conversion to the new website, and there’s nothing new to replace its function.

The search feature on the new website is better than on the old. But there is a curious twist to the new search: It gives different results depending on the starting page. This could be a potentially useful feature if users were made aware of it. For example, if the user is currently viewing the Finance Department web page and starts a search, the system could give the user a choice of search just the Finance Department, or all of the website. Presently, it appears that the search would be confined to just the Finance Department, and users could easily conclude that documents they searched for don’t exist, when in fact they do.

Most new websites in recent years will adapt so they are usable from mobile devices like smartphones. Not so with the new Wichita website.

Spending data

Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites. Sedgwick County does, and also the Wichita school district. Not so the City of Wichita.

wichita-checkbook-register-example
Even after asking for checkbook spending data, Wichita can supply data of only limited utility. What was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult and beyond the capability of most citizens to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think it would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

Legal notices

Kansas law requires that local government agencies publish legal notices for a variety of topics. Presently these are published in the Wichita Eagle at great cost to taxpayers. These notices could also be published on the city’s website, where they could be searched and archived. This would increase the usability of these documents at very little cost to the city.

Publish requests

When governmental agencies like the City of Wichita fulfill records requests, they could also publish the records on their websites. Most of the time the records are supplied electronically, so this is an additional simple (and low cost) step that would leverage the value of the city’s effort.

Leveraging our lobbyists

What do lobbyists, including taxpayer-funded lobbyists, do in Topeka? One thing they do is testify before committees, in both verbal and written form. Another thing they do is to prepare reports for the clients, advising them on upcoming legislation, analyzing how it affects them, and what the prospects for the bill might be. They also meet with legislators and their clients, which are your elected officials.

Here’s a proposal that will help citizens make best use of their taxpayer-funded lobbyists:

I see nothing in the Kansas Open Records Act that allows local governmental units in Kansas to refuse to disclose these documents: testimony, reports by lobbyists to their government clients, and the lobbyists’ calendars (or billing records for contract lobbyists). Instead of making citizens ask for these records, possibly paying fees to obtain what they’re already paying for, why don’t local governments post these documents immediately on their websites?

Citizens could then benefit from the activities of the lobbyists they’re paying for. They could learn more about legislation as it works its way through the process. Citizens could judge whether the positions taken by the government lobbyists they’re paying for are aligned with their policy preferences.

If the actions taken by taxpayer-funded lobbyists are truly in the public interest, you’d think that cities, counties, and school boards would already be making this information easily available. In any case, there should be no resistance to starting this program.

Kansas education topic on ‘This Week in Kansas’

school-homework

Kansas education issues were a topic on a recent segment of KAKE TV “This Week in Kansas.”

Opening the show, Representative Jim Ward made a small but potentially consequential mistake when he said the “legislature has violated their constitutional duty to provide for an adequate or sufficient education.”

The Kansas Constitution actually says this in Article 6, Section 6(b): “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

It’s too bad that the Kansas Constitution doesn’t mandate that the state provide an “adequate or sufficient” education, as that would provide the basis for a lawsuit that would actually — potentially — benefit Kansas schoolchildren.

The performance of Kansas schools that the education establishment touts wilts when examined under a statistical microscope. 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.

(For more on this, see Kansas school test scores, in perspective.)

Furthermore — and this is important considering the significance given to the current school finance lawsuit: At a time when Kansas was spending more on schools due to an order from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state lowered its already low standards for schools.

That is the conclusion of the National Center for Education Statistics, based on the most recent version of Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales. NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations, and is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.

The mapping project establishes a relationship between the tests each state gives to assess its students and the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test that is the same in all states. As explained in Kansas school standards and other states, Kansas standards are relatively low, compared to other states. This video explains.

Sample conclusions of this analysis for Kansas include:

“Although no substantive changes in the reading assessments from 2007 to 2009 were indicated by the state, the NAEP scale equivalent of both its grade 4 and grade 8 standards decreased.

Also: “Kansas made substantive changes to its reading grade 8 assessment between 2005 and 2009, and the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 8 standards decreased.

In other words, NCES judged that Kansas weakened its standards for reading performance.

Mark Tallman of Kansas Association of School Boards also appeared. His focus is primarily on spending, but also makes the same mistakes when citing the performance of Kansas schools.

Wichita City Hall.

Wichita’s legislative agenda favors government, not citizens

city-council-chambers-sign-small

This week the Wichita City Council will consider its legislative agenda. This document contains many items that are contrary to economic freedom, capitalism, limited government, and individual liberty. Yet, Wichitans pay taxes to have someone in Topeka promote this agenda. I’ve excerpted the document here, and following are some of the most problematic items.

Agenda: Existing economic development tools are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our community.

First. The premise of this item is incorrect. We don’t have growth and prosperity in Wichita. Compared to a broad group of peer metropolitan areas, Wichita performs very poorly. See For Wichita’s economic development machinery, failure for details.

Second: In general, these incentives don’t work to increase prosperity. Click here for a summary of the peer-reviewed academic research that examines the local impact of targeted tax incentives from an empirical point of view. “Peer-reviewed” means these studies were stripped of identification of authorship and then subjected to critique by other economists, and were able to pass that review.

Third: Wichita leaders often complain that Wichita doesn’t have enough “tools in the toolbox” to compete effectively in economic development. The city’s document lists the tools the city wants the legislature to protect:

  • GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions
  • Industrial Revenue Bond tax abatements (IRBX)
  • Economic Development Exemptions (EDX)
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF)
  • Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) Bonds
  • Community Improvement Districts (CID)
  • Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) tax rebates
  • Special Assessment financing for neighborhood infrastructure projects, facade improvements and abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint.
  • State Historic Preservation Tax Credits (HPTC)
  • State administration of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC)
  • High Performance Incentive Program (HPIP) tax credits
  • Investments in Major Projects and Comprehensive Training (IMPACT) grants
  • Promoting Employment Across Kansas (PEAK) program
  • Economic Revitalization and Reinvestment Act bonding for major aviation and wind energy projects
  • Kansas Industrial Training (KIT) and Kansas Industrial Retraining (KIR) grants
  • Network Kansas tax credit funding
  • State support for Innovation Commercialization Centers in Commerce Department budget

That’s quite a list of incentive programs. Some of these are so valuable that Kansas business leaders told the governor that they value these incentives more than they would value elimination of the state corporate income tax.

Agenda: GWEDC/GO WICHITA: Support existing statutory records exemptions

This may refer to the city wanting to prevent these agencies from having to fulfill records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act. (If so, I wonder why the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation was left off.) City leaders say Wichita has an open and transparent government. But Kansas has a weak records law, and Wichita doesn’t want to follow the law, as weak as it is. This is an insult to citizens who are not able to access how their taxes are spent. For more on this issue, see Open Records in Kansas.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any legislative attempts to restrict the taxing and spending authority of local governments.

As Wichita city leaders prepare to ask for a higher sales tax rate in Wichita, we can hope that the legislature will save us from ourselves. At best, we can hope that the legislature requires that all tax rate increases be put to popular vote.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council opposes any restrictions on the use of state and/or local public monies to provide information to our citizens and to advocate on their behalf.

This is the taxpayer-funded lobbying issue. As you can see in this document, many of the things that Wichita city leaders believe people want, or believe that will be good for their constituents, are actually harmful. Additionally, many of the methods the city uses to engage citizens to determine their needs are faulty. See In Wichita, there’s no option for dissent for an example. Also, see Wichita survey questions based on false premises.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the current framework for local elections, continuing the current February/April schedule of local primary and general elections, as well as the local option allowing non-partisan elections.

The present system of non-partisan elections held in the spring results in low voter turnout that lets special interest groups exercise greater influence than would be likely in fall elections. See my legislative testimony in Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Agenda: The Wichita City Council supports the development of appropriate state and local incentives to nurture and preserve arts activity throughout the City of Wichita and the State of Kansas.

Translation: The city knows better than you how to provide for your entertainment and cultural edification, and will continue to tax you for your own benefit.

Agenda: Public support and awareness of the possibility of passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City and Wichita/Newton has grown over the past two years.

I’m not sure where the claim of public support and awareness growing comes from, but people are definitely not informed about the economics of passenger rail. In 2010, when the state rolled out several plans for this passenger rail service link, I reported as follows:

Expansion of rail service in Kansas is controversial, at least to some people, in that any form of rail service requires taxpayer involvement to pay for the service. First, taxpayer funding is required to pay for the start-up costs for the service. There are four alternatives being presented for rail service expansion in Kansas, and the start-up costs range from $156 million up to $479 million.

After this, taxpayer subsidies will be required every year to pay for the ongoing operational costs of providing passenger rail service. The four alternatives would require an annual operating subsidy ranging from $2.1 million up to $6.1 million. Taking the operating subsidy and dividing by the estimated number of passengers for each alternative, the per-passenger subsidy ranges from $35 up to $97 for every passenger who uses the service.

It would be one thing if tickets sales and other revenue sources such as sale of food and beverage paid for most of the cost of providing passenger rail service, and taxpayers were being asked to provide a little boost to get the service started and keep it running until it can sustain itself. But that’s not the case. Taxpayers are being asked to fully fund the start-up costs. Then, they’re expected to pay the majority of ongoing expenses, apparently forever.

Also, in Amtrak, taxpayer burden, should not be expanded in Kansas I reported on the Heartland Flyer route specifically. This is from 2010, but I doubt much has changed since then.

For the Heartland Flyer route, which runs from Fort Worth to Oklahoma, and is proposed by taxpayer-funded rail supporters to extend into Kansas through Wichita and Kansas City, we find these statistics about the finances of this operation:

Amtrak reports a profit/loss per passenger mile on this route of $-.02, meaning that each passenger, per mile traveled, resulted in a loss of two cents. Taxpayers pay for that.

But this number, as bad as it is, is totally misleading. Subsidyscope calculated a different number. This number, unlike the numbers Amrak publishes, includes depreciation, ancillary businesses and overhead costs — the types of costs that private sector businesses bear and report. When these costs are included, the Heartland Flyer route results in a loss of 13 cents per passenger mile, or a loss of $26.76 per passenger for the trip from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Asking the taxpayers of Wichita to pay subsidies each time someone boards an Amtrak train: This doesn’t sound like economic development, much less a program that people living in a free society should be forced to fund.

LOB property tax increase already in effect

chalkboard-portion-800

From Kansas Policy Institute.

LOB property tax increase already in effect

By Dave Trabert

About a year ago we asked the Kansas Department of Education to verify our calculation of the Local Option Budget (LOB) property tax increase that would result if Base State Aid Per Pupil (BSAPP) was increased from $3,838 per-pupil to $4,492 in accordance with a final Gannon ruling in favor of the plaintiffs/against Kansas taxpayers. KSDE verified our calculation but didn’t mention that the Legislature had already authorized districts to calculate LOB based on a hypothetical BSAPP of $4,433. Therefore, our reporting that increasing BSAPP to $4,492 would prompt an LOB increase of $154 million was inadvertently inaccurate, since most of that increase has already taken place. Upon learning of the potential mistake, we immediately contacted KSDE for clarification and issued this correction. We apologize for our role in this inadvertent reporting.

It should also be noted that the authorization to calculate LOB at a hypothetical rate of $4,433 expires on June 30, 2014; if not re-authorized, LOB calculations will be based on the actual amount of BSAPP, which currently is $3,838.

Setting LOB aside, let’s revisit the potential impact on citizens and the state budget if the Gannon ruling is upheld and implemented.

Continue reading

2013 year in review: Top 10 stories from the Sunflower State

2013 year in review: Top 10 stories from the Sunflower State

By Travis Perry, Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — It’s over, done, finalized, finito. With the final days and hours of 2013 ticking to a close, we figured it’s a good time for reflection on what the last 12 months have brought the Sunflower State.

So, without further delay, Kansas Watchdog presents its Top 10 stories of 2013.

Strip Club

1. Wayward welfare dollars

An in-depth investigation into howKansans spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in government welfare money came to a shocking conclusion: a striking number of transactions appear to be going toward anything but the basic necessities. From casinos and liquor stores to smoke shops and even strip clubs, Kansas Watchdog uncovered more than $43,000 in transactions at shady ATM locations around the state. To make matters worse, all this only took place over a three-month period.

Read It:
Kansans spent welfare cash on strippers, smokes and sour mash

Video camera

2. Camera-shy state lawmakers

Fun fact: Did you know the Kansas Capitol is capable of broadcasting live video online of some of the Legislature’s most important committee meetings? Don’t beat yourself up over it. A striking number of lawmakers don’t know, either. It’s the end result of years of apathy that has led the state to be one of only 11 nationwide that do not stream some form of live video. If some kid in the middle of nowhere can attract global eyeballs with nothing more than a camera phone, what’s keeping the Kansas Legislature off the air?

Read it:
Camera shy: Kansas legislators sidestep transparency
Eye in the sky: Kansas legislative leader won’t require streaming video

3. Judicial selection gymnastics

Here’s a shocking revelation: politics sway candidate commentaries, and Kansas is no exception. Gov. Sam Brownback’s pick for the Kansas Court of Appeals is a prime example of this, after the situation prompted his Democratic gubernatorial challenger to switch sides on his stance to oppose the new nominee. And how could we forget that, in their rush to criticize the conservative governor, Kansas Democrats conveniently forgot thatKathleen Sebelius did almost the exact same thing only a few years earlier.

Read it:
Democratic leader flip-flops on Kansas judicial nominee
Partisan politics fuel Kansas Democrat’s change of heart
Kansas Democrats use double standard on judicial nomination criticism

4. Follow the money

And as long as we’re on the topic of judicial nominees, how about we turn the spotlight on a few other critics of Brownback’s decision? Namely theLeague of Women Voters and Justice At Stake, both of which claim to be nonpartisan organizations while simultaneously accepting large sums of cash from George Soros’ liberal nonprofits, the Tides Foundation and Open Society Institute.

Read it:
Soros bankrolls ‘nonpartisan’ critics of Kansas governor
‘Nonpartisan’ critic says Soros cash hasn’t caused political bias
money-limit

5. Fiscal follies

Ever wonder just how much work goes into calculating the cost of a legislative proposal? Not that much, apparently. While state agencies claim they don’t pad their figures, government critics charge them with doing just that, and a close inspection of a few cost estimates only bolsters the case. Should it cost $17,000 for the state to put online a spreadsheet of data it already has? What about $20,000 for a program agency officials say could have been absorbed in-house? Yea, we thought so too.

Read it:
Fiscal follies: Kansas cost estimates draw criticism

 
money jail

6. Your money, behind bars

How much should Kansas spend to lock up individuals whose only crime is drug related? While lawmakers are struggling to figure out what that figure should be, the reality is that Kansas drops about $42 million annually to keep these men and women in prison. To make matters worse, state law enforcement statistics suggest it’s overwhelmingly because of Kansas continues to wage war against marijuana.

Read it:
Kansas spends millions to keep non-violent drug offenders behind bars
Twinkies-2

7. Raking-in the dough

Remember the media flurry surrounding the implosion of Hostess, one of America’s most iconic snack food manufacturers? Well here’s something you probably missed. According to the government, former employees were knocked out due to foreign trade pressure, and for that deserve extra benefits above and beyond standard unemployment insurance. But everything uncovered by Kansas Watchdog seems to point to the contrary. Curious? So were we.

Read it:
Former Hostess workers land sweet deal, taxpayers foot bill
Did foreign trade really cause Hostess’ demise?
Couch fire

8. Couch crackdown

If you’re looking for the nuttiest story of the year, look no further. The City ofLawrence, Kansas’ liberal bastion, only months ago brought us the headache-inducing mandate that city residents are not, in fact, capable of policing their own safety. Rather, officials passed a ban on front porch couches, despite the fact that local and nationwide statistics suggest it’s less of an issue than advocates would have folks believe.

Read it:
Kansas community cracks down on couches
Islam Display

9. Islamic fervor

Wichita-area school came under fire earlier this year after students and parents were greeted on the first day of school with a large display outlining the five pillars of the Islamic faith. The matter prompted emotions of all scope and size, and landed the school squarely in the national spotlight.

Read it:
Kansas lawmaker ‘appalled’ by Islamic display in school
KansasSeal

10. Counting for attendance

The legislative session is a busy time for any elected official, but some are less (or more) busy than others, it seems. After Kansas lawmakers headed for home in June, Kansas Watchdog took an in-depth peek at how they faired in the preceding months, and what we found was jaw-dropping. In all, seven members of the House of Representatives had missed more votes than all other members of the House combined.

Read it:

Handful of Kansas lawmakers outpace all others for missed votes

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at@muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

Job growth, Kansas and other states

Kansas Capitol 2013-11-11 14.58.34Critics of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and his economic growth plans say Kansas hasn’t been creating jobs. A look at the statistics tells us that Kansas has produced substandard performance in job growth for a long time.

job-growth-states-compound-annual-rate-2013-12

The nearby chart (click for a larger version) shows the compound annual rate of growth of jobs in the states, with Kansas highlighted in blue.

From 1992 to 2012, Kansas created jobs at the rate of 1.022 percent per year, compounded. Arkansas managed 1.096 percent over the same period. That seems like a small difference, just 0.074 percentage points. But over time, compounding adds up, so to speak. If both states started with one million jobs and continued growing at these rates, in ten years Arkansas would have 8,136 more jobs than Kansas. In 20 years, the difference would be 18,080 jobs. That’s about as many people as work in each of Finney and Ford Counties, home to Dodge City and Garden City, respectively.

Or, consider Texas, the state Kansas progressives love to hate. It’s has created jobs at the rate of 2.001 percent. If both states started with one million jobs and grew at these rates, in ten years Texas would have 112,083 more jobs than Kansas would have. In 20 years the difference would be 260,722 jobs. That’s almost as many people as work in the Wichita metropolitan area.

Using the visualization.

Using the visualization.

If you’d like to use the interactive visualization of state employment data, you may click here to open it in a new window. Data is from Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Visualization created using Tableau Public.

Wichita can advocate for government transparency, or not

Wichita City Hall

Government should be responsive to citizens when they make legitimate requests for records. Wichita should not hide behind non-profit entities and tortured interpretations of the law in order to keep records secret.

When the Wichita City Council considers renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, the council has another opportunity to decide whether it is truly in favor of open government and citizen access to records.

Go Wichita, along with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, contends that it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests. Mayor Carl Brewer and most council members are comfortable with this tortured interpretation of the law. Inexplicably, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agreed with the city.

I, along with many others, believe the city’s interpretation of the law is incorrect. So do many in the Kansas Legislature, and action may be taken there to eliminate the ability of Wichita to keep public records from the public. We can call it Gary’s Law, after Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who provides the legal advice the city relies upon.

The legal stance of the City of Wichita certainly isn’t good public policy. Citizens should be able to learn how taxpayer money is spent. Agencies like Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC need to open their check registers as has Sedgwick County, for example.

In the meantime, there is nothing to prevent the city from asking Go Wichita to act as though it was a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act and to fulfill records requests. This would let Wichitans know that the city is truly interested in open and transparent government.

It’s easy to bluster about open government. In one of his “State of the City” addresses, Mayor Brewer promoted the city’s efforts in accountability and transparency, telling the audience: “We must continue to be responsive to you. Building on our belief that government at all levels belongs to the people. We must continue our efforts that expand citizen engagement. … And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” Many other city documents mention transparency as a goal for the city.

Earlier this year, the city won an award for government transparency regarding the city’s website. In a statement, the city manager said the city “will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

Until the city asks that these quasi-governmental organizations subject themselves to the Kansas Open Records Act, the message from the City of Wichita is clear: Accountability and transparency is provided on the city’s terms, not on citizens’ terms and the law.

Why open records are important

labette-community-college-donationHere’s an example as to why this issue is important: In 2009 Mike Howerter, a trustee for Labette Community College, noticed that a check number was missing from a register. Based on his inquiry, it was revealed that the missing check was used to reimburse the college president for a political contribution. While it was determined that the college president committed no crime by making this political contribution using college funds, this is an example of the type of information that citizens may want regarding the way public funds are spent.

This is the type of information that I have requested. It is what is needed to perform effective oversight. It is what the City of Wichita has decided to avoid.

This item in the past

Two years ago I asked that the city council approve the contract with Go Wichita only after adding a provision that Go Wichita consider itself a public agency under the Kansas Open Records Act. Following are a few notes from the meeting (video may be viewed here or at the end of this article):

Discussion of this matter at the meeting reveals that city staff believes that the annual reports filed by Go Wichita along with periodic checks by city staff are sufficient oversight.

City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf cited the law regarding enforcement of the Kansas Open Records Act, stating that the Kansas Attorney General or the courts is the next step to seek enforcement of KORA. While Rebenstorf is correct on the law, the policy of the Kansas Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local district attorney. The Kansas AG will not intervene in this matter.

Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Misunderstanding the scope of KORA

In remarks from the bench Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Is the city overwhelmed with records requests?

Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].”

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I have made one request this year to the city citing the open records act. It was denied. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to his concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is typical of elected officials — disdain for providing records to citizens. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent. The city should not hide behind non-profit entities and torture the law in order to keep records secret.

Wichita’s attitude towards citizens

Randy Brown’s remarks are an excellent summation of the morality and politics of the city’s action and attitude regarding this matter.

The council ought to be wary of taking legal advice from city attorney Gary Rebenstorf. He has been wrong several times before when issuing guidance to this council regarding the Kansas Open Meetings Act, which is similar to the Open Records Act. He’s taken the blame and apologized for these violations. He was quoted in the Wichita Eagle as saying “I will make every effort to further a culture of openness and ensure that like mistakes are avoided in the future.”

But Rebenstorf’s attitude, as gauged accurately by Randy Brown, is to rely on facile legal arguments to avoid complying with the clear meaning and intent of the law.

Why city council members would be opposed to what I have asked is unknown. Perhaps they know that among the public, issues relating to open records generally aren’t that important. Citizens ought to note the actions of Mayor Brewer. The mayor could easily put this matter to an end. He speaks of wanting to have open and transparent government, but when it comes time to make a tough call, his leadership is missing.

It’s becoming evident that Kansans need a better way to enforce compliance with the Kansas Open Records Act. It seems quite strange that local district attorneys are placed in a quasi-judicial role of deciding whether citizen complains are justified. If citizens disagree — and nearly everyone I’ve talked to thinks that the opinion issued by the Sedgwick County District Attorney is this matter is nonsensical and contrary to the letter and spirit of the law — they find themselves in the position of suing their government. That is costly, and citizens soon realize their own taxpayer dollars are used against them.

Wichita logic open records

Shortchanging Kansas schoolchildren, indeed

School blackboardThis month the New York Times published an editorial that advocates for more spending on Kansas public schools. While getting some facts wrong, the piece also overlooks the ways that Kansas schoolchildren are truly being shortchanged.

Here’s evidence supplied by the Times (Shortchanging Kansas Schoolchildren, October 13, 2013): “State spending on education has fallen an estimated 16.5 percent since 2008, including $500 million in cuts under the Brownback administration, resulting in teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.” (Governor Brownback has responded to the editorial; see Kansas Governor responds to the Times.)

The Times editorial board doesn’t say how it calculated the 16.5 percent decline in spending, but it’s likely that it used only base state aid per pupil, which is the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula. Much more spending is added to that. A nearby table holds spending figures for recent years, and a similar chart with inflation-adjusted figures may be found in Kansas school spending rises.

kansas-school-spending-2013-10-table-02

Perhaps the Times didn’t notice that at the time base state aid was falling, total state spending on schools rose. Base state aid per pupil, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was during the previous decade. Total Kansas state spending on schools, however, has recovered to the same level as 2006, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Total state aid per pupil this past school year was $6,984. Base state aid per pupil was $3,838. Total state spending, therefore, was 1.82 times base state aid. It’s important to consider the totality of spending and not just base state aid. It’s important because total spending is so much greater than base state aid. Also, total spending accounts for some of the difficulties and expenses that schools cite when asking for higher spending.

For example, advocates for higher school spending often point to non-English speaking students and at-risk students as being expensive to educate. In recognition of this, the Kansas school finance formula makes allowances for this. According to the Kansas Legislator Briefing Book for 2013, the weighting for “full-time equivalent enrollment in bilingual education programs” is 0.395. This means that for each such student a school district has, an additional 39.5 percent over base state aid is given to the district.

For at-risk pupils, the weighting is 0.456. At risk students, according to the briefing book, “are determined on the basis of at-risk factors determined by the school district board of education and not by virtue of eligibility for free meals.”

Taken together, bilingual students considered to be at-risk generate an additional 85.1 percent of base state aid to be sent to the district, per student.

Teachers and class sizes

The Times wrote that under Brownback, Kansas experienced “teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.” Figures from the Kansas State Department of Education tell a different story. Considering the entire state, two trends emerge. For the past two years, the number of teachers employed in Kansas public schools has risen. Correspondingly, the pupil-teacher ratio has fallen.

Kansas school employment

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. Pupil-teacher ratio is not the same as class size, but it’s the data we have.

Here’s the question we need to answer: If school districts have been able to hire more teachers and other certified employees, and if the student to teacher ratio is improving at the same time, but there are still high class sizes, what are school districts doing with these teachers and employees?

Kansas school employment ratios

By the way, the Times editorial writers might be interested in learning that the declines in school employment occurred during the administrations of Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, Democrats both.

I’ve created interactive visualizations that let you examine the employment levels and ratios in Kansas school districts. Click here for the visualization of employment levels. Click here for the visualization of ratios (pupil-teacher and pupil-certified employee).

If the Times really wanted to help Kansas schoolchildren from being shortchanged, it might have noticed that at a time when Kansas was spending more on schools due to an order from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state weakened its already low standards for schools. This is the conclusion of the National Center for Education Statistics, based on the most recent version of Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales. More about that can be found in Why are Kansas school standards so low?

Another thing the Times could have done to increase the public’s awareness of the performance of Kansas schools is to investigate why Kansas schools perform relatively well on national tests. I and others have done this; see Kansas school test scores, a hidden story and Kansas and Texas schools and low-income students.

Kansas schools do not have rigorous standards, despite newspaper editorials

kansas-city-star-2013-10-15A Kansas City Star editorial makes a case for higher school spending in Kansas, but is based on a premise that doesn’t exist in fact.

In its conclusion, the editorial states: “Kansans have always known that rigorous standards and strong, well-funded public school systems are the best routes to an educated work force.” (A decisive time for Kansas schools, October 15, 2013.)

The problem is that Kansas doesn’t have rigorous standards for its schools.

If the Star editorial writers had asked the National Center for Education Statistics about Kansas school standards, that agency might have referred the editorialists to the most recent version of Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales. (NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations, and is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.)

The mapping project establishes a relationship between the tests each state gives to assess its students and the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test that is the same in all states. The conclusion of NCES is that Kansas school standards are relatively low, compared to other states. This video explains. (View below, or click here to view in HD at YouTube.)

For Kansas, here are some key findings. First, NCES asks this question: “How do Kansas’s NAEP scale equivalent scores of reading standards for proficient performance at grades 4 and 8 in 2009 compare with those estimated for 2005 and 2007?”

For Kansas, the two answers are this (emphasis added):

“Although no substantive changes in the reading assessments from 2007 to 2009 were indicated by the state, the NAEP scale equivalent of both its grade 4 and grade 8 standards decreased.

Also: “Kansas made substantive changes to its reading grade 8 assessment between 2005 and 2009, and the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 8 standards decreased.

In other words, NCES judged that Kansas weakened its standards for reading performance.

A similar question was considered for math: “How do Kansas’s NAEP scale equivalent scores of mathematics standards for proficient performance at grades 4 and 8 in 2009 compare with those estimated for 2005 and 2007?”

For Kansas, the two answers are this (emphasis added):

“Although no substantive changes in the mathematics assessments from 2007 to 2009 were indicated by the state, the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 8 standards decreased (the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 4 standards did not change).”

Also: “Kansas made substantive changes to its mathematics grade 4 assessment between 2005 and 2009, but the NAEP scale equivalent of its grade 4 standards did not change.”

For mathematics, NCES judges that some standards were weakened, and some did not change.

In its summary of Kansas reading standards, NCES concluded: “In both grades, Kansas state assessment results showed more positive changes in achievement than NAEP results.” For mathematics, the summary reads: “In grade 4, Kansas state assessment results showed a change in achievement that is not different from that based on NAEP results. In grade 8, state assessment results showed a more positive change.”

In other words: In three of four instances, Kansas is claiming positive student achievement that isn’t apparent on national tests.

Kansas is not alone in weakening its standards during this period. It’s also not alone in showing better performance on state tests than on national tests. States were under pressure to show increased scores, and some — Kansas included — weakened their state assessment standards in response.

What’s important to know is that Kansas school leaders are not being honest with Kansans as a whole, and with parents specifically. In the face of these findings from NCES, Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane M. DeBacker wrote this in the pages of The Wichita Eagle: “Kansans are proud of the quality of their public schools, and a steady and continuing increase in student performance over the past decade has given us ample reason for that pride.” (Diane DeBacker : Pride in Kansas public schools is well-placed, March 20, 2012.)

A look at the scores, however, show that national test results don’t match the state-controlled tests that DeBacker touts. She controls these states tests, by the way. See Kansas needs truth about schools.

The same year a number of school district superintendents made a plea for increased funding in Kansas schools, referring to “multiple funding cuts.” (Reverse funding cuts, May 3, 2012 Wichita Eagle.) In this article, the school leaders claimed “Historically, our state has had high-performing schools, which make Kansas a great place to live, raise a family and run a business.”

These claims made by Kansas school leaders are refuted by the statistics that aren’t under the control of these same leaders. Before courts rule on school spending, and before we change Kansas school standards, we need to realize the recent stewardship of Kansas schools under current leadership.

Ask these questions before devoting more resources to Kansas public schools:

Why are Kansas school standards so low compared to other states?

Why did Kansas reduce its standards at the same time school spending was increasing?

Following are two examples of charts from the NCES study where Kansas school standards rank compared to other states. Click on them for larger versions.

Kansas Grade 4 Reading Standards

Kansas Grade 4 Math Standards 01

Exchange Place still not good for Wichita, others

Wichita city hall logo

Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider a redevelopment plan for the Exchange Place project in downtown Wichita. Despite having shed the problems with the former owners, the project has become an even worse deal for the taxpayers of Wichita, Kansas, and the nation. Those looking for jobs and for investment capital to meet consumer demands are worse off, too.

Here’s what the city council agenda packet gives as the sources of financing for this project.

HUD Loan Amount         $29,087,700
Private Equity            5,652,254
Tax Credit Equity        19,370,395
TIF Proceeds             12,500,000
Total Sources of Funds  $66,610,349

Consider each of these sources of funding. TIF, or tax increment financing, diverts future increased tax revenues away from their normal uses and diverts them back to the project. In this case, the city will borrow $12,500,000 by selling bonds. It will give this money to the developer. Then, TIF proceeds will be used to repay these bonds.

It sounds innocent, even beneficient and desirable. But if this project was not built within a TIF district, it would add $12,500,000 in tax revenues to the city, county, and school district. This is called “building up the tax base,” something politicians and bureaucrats say is an important goal. Downtown Wichita, however, has not done well in this regard, despite the claim of hundreds of millions in investment.

City leaders will tell us that tax increment financing is needed for economic development. Regarding the effect of tax increment financing districts on economic development, economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman have studied tax increment financing extensively. Their paper The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development bluntly states the overall impact of TIF: “We find clear and consistent evidence that municipalities that adopt TIF grow more slowly after adoption than those that do not.”

Later in the same paper the authors conclude: “These findings suggest that TIF trades off higher growth in the TIF district for lower growth elsewhere. This hypothesis is bolstered by other empirical findings.”

What about the effect of tax increment financing on job creation, that being another goal mentioned by politicians and bureaucrats? One person who has looked at the effect of TIF on jobs is Paul F. Byrne of Washburn University. He authored a recent report titled Does Tax Increment Financing Deliver on Its Promise of Jobs? The Impact of Tax Increment Financing on Municipal Employment Growth. In its abstract we find this conclusion regarding the impact of TIF on jobs: “Results find no general impact of TIF use on employment. However, findings suggest that TIF districts supporting industrial development may have a positive effect on municipal employment, whereas TIF districts supporting retail development have a negative effect on municipal employment.” This project is a retail project, and can be expected to have a negative effect on employment.

Another bad aspect of this project for citizens is what city documents describe as “tax credit equity.” The amount is $19,370,395. This is understatement at its finest. Tax credits are a direct transfer from taxpayers to the project developers, with very few strings attached.

A tax credit is an appropriation of money made through the tax system and economically equivalent to a direct grant of money. Recently some have started to use the word “tax appropriations” or “tax expenditures” to describe tax credits in recognition of this. These expenditures don’t go through the normal legislative process as do most appropriations. If the Kansas Legislature and United States Congress are not comfortable with writing this developer a check for over $19,000,000, they should not make a roundabout contribution through the tax system that has the same economic impact on the state’s and nation’s finances.

Citizens will be told that the tax credits are needed because rehabbing historic buildings is expensive. We should let politicians and bureaucrats know that living or working in a historic building is a premium amenity that one chooses, just like one might choose granite counter tops in their kitchen. We shouldn’t expect others to pay for these voluntary choices.

Then, there’s a “HUD Loan Amount,” which is actually a loan guarantee of $29,087,700. U.S. taxpayers are liable for this amount of money should the project not meet its projections.

The subsides to this project have real costs. This development will require services from the city, county, and school district, yet it won’t be contributing its full share of property taxes. So someone else has to pay.

The tax credits represent money that has to be made up by taxpayers across Kansas and the nation. Again, someone else has to pay. Since Kansas applies sales tax to food, even poor people buying groceries will be contributing to the cost of the grants given to this project through state tax credits.

We’ll be told that there’s a “funding gap” that taxpayers must step forward to fill. Why does that gap exist? It’s simple: Markets have decided that this project is not worth what it costs. If it was worth what it’s going to cost, and if the developer is reputable (as we’ve been promised), markets would be willing to fund the project. This happens every day all across the country, even during recessions.

What the city is proposing to do is to take risks with the taxpayers’ money that no one is willing to take with their own. Further, the spending and credit that is diverted from markets to this project wastes capital. There is less capital available for projects that people value, because it is diverted to projects that politicians and bureaucrats value.

The difficulty is that it’s easy to see the new project. The groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies that commemorate government intervention will be covered by television and newspapers. Politicians and bureaucrats are drawn to these events and will spend taxpayer funds to make sure you’re aware of them.

It’s more difficult to see that the harm that government intervention causes. That harm is dispersed and more difficult to spot. But the harm is real. If it is not, then we need to ask why our governments don’t do more of this type of development.

Driving by a development in a TIF district and noticing a building or people working at jobs does not tell the entire story. Recognizing the existence of a building, or the payment of taxes, or jobs created, is “stage one” thinking, and no more than that.

It’s hard to think beyond stage one. It requires considering not only the seen, but also the unseen, as Frederic Bastiat taught us in his famous parable of the broken window. It also requires thinking of the long term effects of a policy, not just the immediate. But over and over again we see how politicians at all levels of government stop thinking at stage one. This is one of the many reasons why we need to return as much decision-making as possible to the private sector, and drastically limit the powers of politicians and governments.