Tag Archives: Kansas State Board of Education

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In Kansas, school employment rises again

For the fourth consecutive year, the number of teachers in Kansas public schools has risen faster than enrollment, leading to declining pupil-teacher ratios.

Listening to Kansas school officials and legislators — not to mention politicians campaigning for office — you’d think that Kansas schools had very few teachers left, and that students were struggling in huge classes. But statistics from Kansas State Department of Education show that school employment has rebounded, both in terms of absolute numbers of teachers and certified employees, and the ratios of pupils to these employees.

The story is not the same in every district. But considering the entire state, two trends emerge. For the past four years, the number of teachers employed in Kansas public schools has risen. Since the number of teachers has risen proportionally faster than enrollment, the pupil-teacher ratio has fallen.

The trend for certified employees is a year behind that of teachers, but the number of certified employees has also risen, and the ratio to pupils has mostly fallen.

(In the chart, “fiscal year” refers to the calendar year in which the school year ends. So fiscal year 2015 refers to the 2015-15 school year.)

Public school advocates complain that class sizes in Kansas schools are rising. I understand that 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 that leads to decreasing pupil to teacher ratios, and at the same time class sizes are increasing — we have to wonder about the management of schools.

I’ve created an interactive visualization that lets you examine the employment levels and ratios in Kansas school districts. Click here to open the visualization in a new window. Data is from Kansas State Department of Education. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public.

Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for larger version.
Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for larger version.

Kansas school spending and achievement

Following, from Dr. Walt Chappell, a discussion of Kansas school spending. Chappell served on the Kansas State Board of Education from 2009 to 2012.

The truth is, Governor Brownback and most Kansas legislators have worked hard to get more money into K-12 classrooms and have increased funding to educate our children each of the last four years. Claims that funds for schools have been cut, supposedly causing test scores to drop, schools to close, class sizes to go up and college tuition to increase are totally false.

apple-chalkboard-books-2Yes, there was a large reduction of $419 million to fund Kansas schools in 2009 when Mark Parkinson was Governor. The 2008 Great Recession hit Americans hard and state tax revenues dropped like a rock. Then, in 2011, the Federal government stopped sending emergency TARP funds to all states.

The Kansas Legislature made up the $219 million in Federal cuts by raising the amount spent from state tax revenues by $223 million. Brownback signed that budget bill.

Continue reading

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What is truth on education finance in Kansas?

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Duane Goossen distorts the truth on education finance

By Dave Trabert

Former state budget director Duane Goossen’s recent blog post entitled “Woe to Education Finance” is yet another example of data being deliberately distorted or falsified for political gain. Mr. Goossen served as budget director under governors Graves, Sebelius and Parkinson and has been a vocal critic of anything even hinting at efficient government…let alone lower tax burdens. Indeed, his post concludes, “The fallout from the governor’s tax plan has made investment in Kansas public schools impossible.” That false claim is completely debunked on page 60 of the Division of Budget’s FY 2015 Comparison Report, showing that state funding of schools will increase by $176 million this year (not counting property taxes that will finally be recorded properly as state aid).

And that’s just the beginning of the false claims and distortions.

Goossen: “Costs for supplies, electricity, transportation, and teachers’ salaries are all increasing. But for the coming academic year, schools must cover those growing expenses with $548 less for each student than they had 6 years ago.”

Table 1 shows the most recent estimate of per-pupil spending for the year just ended. Even if the portion recorded as Federal and Local is unchanged this year, the addition of $176 million will take per-pupil expenditures to roughly $13,411. That would be $751 more per-pupil than six years ago … not $548 less.  Mr. Goossen is only telling a partial story, as shown in the next section.

What’s more, to the extent that costs are increasing for schools, they are also increasing for individual families and businesses. Mr. Goossen is essentially demanding that taxpayers give government a raise when they have no such power with their own paychecks and are facing rising costs as well. His demand for more money also presumes that districts are organized and operating efficiently, which we know is not true according to multiple Legislative Post Audit studies.

Note: The KSDE estimate for 2013-14 was provided before the addition of funding during the recent legislative session, so it is possible the actual spending will be higher than the estimate. It should also be noted that KPI’s estimate of 2014-15 utilizes data from Budget and KSDE and that there could be reporting differences between those entities that would affect the Total. This note also applies to Table 5.

Goossen: “In the 2008/2009 school year, school budgets were based on a per pupil amount of $4,400 — the high point for school finance in Kansas. For the upcoming 2014/2015 school year, lawmakers budgeted $3,852.”

Mr. Goossen writes this as though the amounts listed are all that is provided to schools. In reality, he is talking only about Base State Aid Per Pupil, which is just the beginning point for a portion of school funding. As shown above, total aid per-pupil is about three times greater than Base and that total state aid that is more than double the Base. He deliberately ignores funding that doesn’t suit his preferred narrative.

Goossen: “At its root, a school district’s budget is determined by an amount per pupil multiplied by the number of students. School districts can then add on a “local option budget” of up to 33 percent of the basic budget. Schools must run their classrooms and education programs within that total.”

“Deceptive” would be a generous interpretation of Mr. Goossen’s representation in this regard.  As shown in Table 2, he is grossly understating total aid to school districts. Multiplying Base State Aid Per Pupil times Weighted Enrollment produces an amount roughly equal to Base State Aid plus extra money provided through many weightings (At-Risk, Bilingual, Transportation, etc.); adding Local Option Budget money would lead on to believe that school funding for 2013 was about $3.2 billion.  The actual total, according to the Kansas Department of Education, was $5.8 billion.

 

Saying “schools must run their classrooms and education programs within that total” is the caveat that saves his representation from being an outright false claim. There is no official definition of “education programs” but he later provides a few examples of what he may exclude from “education programs,” saying “… school districts also receive funds for to pay for other things: the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS), special education, school building construction, capital outlay, food service, etc. However, that funding must be used for its intended purpose.”

It is true that money for the listed spending categories must generally be used for those purposes, but his “etc.” contains a lot of unrestricted funding, the most notable of which, Supplemental General State Aid, was $339 million for 2013 and is budgeted to be $448.5 million this year.

Mr. Goossen and other “just spend more” proponents loudly proclaimed over the last few years that the Legislature should raise Base State Aid in accordance with the Supreme Court settlement over Montoy. But now that the Supreme Court has effectively reversed that ruling and says that all funding, including State, Federal, Local and even KPERS must be counted toward adequacy, they have a decidedly different — and quite hypocritical — position. They still cling to Base State Aid as their touchstone and refuse to acknowledge that, as the Supreme Court says, “… a stable retirement system is a factor in attracting and retaining quality educators — a key to providing an adequate education.”

It is also worth noting that school districts say nicer facilities lead to better student outcomes when they want more money for that purpose, but facilities suddenly don’t count when they want other money. Spending more money on facilities also makes less available for other functions, as does having district employees perform functions that could be privatized, which forces more money to be spent on KPERS.

Goossen:  “Costs for supplies, electricity, transportation, and teachers’ salaries are all increasing. But for the coming academic year, schools must cover those growing expenses with $548 less for each student than they had 6 years ago.”

The false claim about per-pupil spending being down was already debunked but Goossen also implies here that Base State Aid Per Pupil is all that schools receive to pay for supplies, electricity, transportation and teachers’ salaries, which of course is not true. Table 3 highlights other major unrestricted funding sources that Mr. Goossen and others routinely ignore in their pursuit of more money.

At-Risk funding does carry some restrictions but that funding is not required to be used for the exclusive benefit of students who generate the funding. For example, the KSDE At-Risk Guidelines say “At-Risk funds can be used to support classroom teacher salaries to the proportional percent identified at-risk students.” The guidelines merely require that at-risk students be present in the classroom.

Table 4 shows spending from the K-12 At-Risk Fund in 2013 (another $19.8 million was spent from the At-Risk 4 year-old Fund, which can be used for K-12), including money spent on each category that Mr. Goossen implied could only be funded with Base State Aid dollars. Most of the salary expenditure was for regular classroom teachers but money was also used to pay for custodians, support staff and administration.

Goossen: “The per-pupil figure has dropped because state funding has dropped.”

Table 1 shows that per-pupil funding of schools has increased. Table 5 shows that state funding has also increased each year since 2011 and is budgeted to set a new record this year. Again, Mr. Goossen does not allow the facts to get in the way of his political narrative.

Goossen: “Is the state in a position to add money to push the per-pupil amount up?

Set aside the fact that that just happened. The real issue here is that Mr. Goossen is posing the wrong question. “Just spend more” is simply about institutional demand for more money and completely disregards the educational needs of individual students. Political demand for more money also ignores these realities:

  • Every Legislative Post Audit report says districts are not operating efficiently.
  • $430 million of education funding was used to increase district cash reserves since 2005.
  • Student achievement on independent national tests is relatively unchanged despite large funding increases over the last decade.

One must wonder how much of Kansas’ and the nation’s student achievement woes are attributable to political self-interest and putting a higher priority on institutions than on the needs of individual 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 Association of School Boards: Putting institutions and money before individual students

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From Kansas Policy Institute.

Kansas Association of School Boards: Putting institutions and money before individual students

By Dave Trabert

There is no question that many students receive a fine public education and go on to success in college or career, but there is also no question that thousands of students are left behind every year. Continuing to pour money into the current broken system — whether ordered to so by courts or by choice — will not close the large achievement gaps that exist for students of color and those from low-income families.

Yet institutional demands for more money continue to drive the debate. Many mission statements effectively say “it’s all about the kids” but in reality, the wants of institutions and the adults in the system often prevail over student needs.

A recent blog post from Mark Tallman and the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) is loaded with more examples of institutions misrepresenting the facts of student achievement and school funding to justify the extraction of more money from taxpayers.

Here’s the first example. “KASB research has shown that the percentage scoring at Basic is a good indicator of the state’s graduation rate, i.e. the percentage of students who complete high school. The percentage scoring at Proficient is a rough indicator of the percentage of students who will meet college readiness benchmarks on the ACT test. In other words, the percent at Basic might be considered the percentage of student “on track” to graduate, and the percent at Proficient indicates those “on track” to be ready for college-level academics.”

First of all, a high school graduation rate says nothing about actual achievement.  In fact, the Kansas Board of Regents reports that 30 percent of 2011 Kansas high school graduates who attended a public college in Kansas actually signed up for remedial training – keep in mind that students voluntarily sign up for these courses and cannot be made to do so by the college. These students apparently know that they aren’t ready to take credit-bearing courses in college.  Also, only 30 percent of the 2013 class who took the ACT test scored high enough to be considered college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science. (Incredibly, KASB representative Tom Krebs testified earlier this year that the ACT college-readiness measure shows that local school districts are doing a good job — because only 30 percent of today’s jobs require a 4-year degree!)

Also, the KASB research that purports to find ‘good indications’ is called a bivariate analysis, meaning that only two variables are considered. This reminds me of something the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) once said with tongue firmly planted in cheek. He noted that northern states tended to have the best student achievement, so we should move schools closer to the Canadian border to improve achievement. His point was that simple bivariate analyses and non sequiturs are no substitution for honest analysis. A bivariate analysis doesn’t control for other factors that may (and frequently do) make a difference.

Note also that KASB continues to lower the bar and now often speaks of the percentage of students at Basic+ instead of Proficient+ on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  They referenced high rankings on Proficient+ until people became aware that Kansas’ proficiency levels are in the 30 percent and 40 percent range. Now they talk about Basic+ so they can use higher percentages and make the institutions look better.

Example #2

On October 7, Mr. Tallman wrote, “KASB absolutely agrees that differences in student characteristics must be considered in evaluating educational performance … the most important factor .. is socio-economic status.”

But that “belief” is largely ignored on October 11 when he writes, “To measure overall state performance, we calculate the average of the percentage of students scoring at both Basic and Proficient on the four tests (Grade 4 reading and math; Grade 8 reading and math). We then rank the average percent for each state.” Two of the four percentages he averaged are based on All Students, which brings the mostly-White states to the top of his list. You see, students of color are two to three years’ worth of learning behind White students, so the states with highest overall average performance are those with the lowest levels of minorities. (This is the essence of Senator Moynihan’s observation.)

Similar achievement gaps exist between low income students and others. And since Census data shows that minorities are twice as likely to live in poverty as Whites, KASB’s deliberate decision to not control for race and income produces very predictable results that are favorable to their overall point (it’s all about the money). Every state in the KASB calculation of the Top Ten states in Reading and Math has Free and Reduced Lunch Eligibility levels below the national average of 48.1 percent. Most of them are well below. The point of KASB’s exercise is of course about money. The states chosen to appear in their top ten all spend more than Kansas.

Example #3

“The State Board of Education has continued to set higher standards.” That’s a real whopper.  Our research shows how and when the Kansas State Board of Education chose to reduce performance standards, to the point where the U.S. Department of Education reports that Kansas has some of the lowest performance standards in the nation. Before publishing our findings, we asked KSDE and KBOE to let us know if there was anything factually incorrect in our work. They didn’t respond.

Example #4

“Economic data indicates Kansas must increase the percentage of high school graduates and college-ready students to meet future employment needs and provide “middle class” incomes.” It’s true that people with more education are able to earn more money but that speaks to the important of getting an education. It has nothing to do with the amount taxpayers are expected to spend on public education.

Example #5

“New national reports have indicated Kansas has further reduced spending compared to most states.” This is a reference to a bogus claim made by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which we completely de-bunked in a separate blog post. CBPP does not publish their data; they only share their “conclusions.” Our request to see their data has gone unanswered. Meanwhile, KSDE data shows that new records for school funding were set in 2012 and 2013 and are predicted to be broken again in 2014.

Example #6

This final example represents the culmination of all the previous misrepresentations. “The totality of the evidence indicates that funding does play an important role in state student achievement and that it will be extremely difficult — and, in fact, unprecedented — for Kansas to improve achievement on NAEP results without additional revenues.” The data, however, tells a much different story.

No change on NAEP scores despite a 32 percent inflation-adjusted increase in per-pupil spending since 1998 (even with all KPERS spending removed, it’s still a 29 percent increase).

ACT scores are flat overall, although White scores slightly increased over the last ten years while scores for Hispanic and African American students are flat or down a bit. ACT doesn’t publish income-based scores.

And after nearly $3 billion in targeted At Risk (low income) spending, there’s virtually no improvement in those students’ achievement.

Yep … it’s all about the money. It’s all about demands to put more money into a system despite voluminous evidence that large funding increases have not closed student achievement gaps and roughly half of all Kansas students are clearly not leaving high school ready for college or careers.

These large achievement gaps do not exist because those students cannot learn, but because they do not have equal access to educational opportunities. Kansas has tried ‘throwing money at the problem’ and it has not worked. Until elected officials and citizens support implementation of student-focused funding and other policy initiatives, they are tacitly choosing to place a higher priority on institutional wants than on student needs.

P.S.  We’re working with legislators and school districts to show how a lot more money can be made available to classrooms by improving district efficiency. It costs a lot of money to fund public education, but it’s how the money is spent that matters … not how much.

WichitaLiberty.TV October 13, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV, a television news and commentary television program covering Wichita and Kansas government and politics.

On this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: First, host Bob Weeks looks back at some issues covered in earlier episodes of WichitaLiberty.TV to see if there’s been progress. Then, Bob uses a little bit of elementary statistics to uncover unfortunate facts about Kansas public schools. Finally, Amanda BillyRock illustrates another chapter of “Economics in One Lesson” about Spread-The-Work Schemes, and Bob illustrates with local applications. Episode 16, broadcast October 13, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Kansas school test scores, a hidden story

School blackboardWe hear a lot about how Kansas shouldn’t strive to become more like Texas, especially regarding schools. Defenders of high school spending in Kansas portray Texas as a backwater state with poor schools. This video takes a look at Kansas and Texas school test scores and reveals something that might surprise you. (Click here to view in high definition at YouTube.) Narrative explanation follows.

Superficially, it looks like the Kansas school spending establishment has a valid point. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test that is the same in all states, has Kansas scoring better than Texas (with one tie) in reading and math, in both fourth and eighth grade.

That makes sense to the school spending establishment, as Kansas, in 2009, spent $11,427 per student. Texas spent $11,085, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Considering only spending deemed by NCES to be for instruction, it was Kansas at $6,162 per student and Texas at $5,138.

Texas also has a higher pupil/teacher ratio. Texas has 14.56 students for each teacher. In Kansas, it’s 13.67. (2009 figures, according to NCES.)

So for those who believe that school spending is positively correlated with student success, Kansas and Texas NAEP scores are evidence that they’re correct in their belief.

But let us take another look at the Kansas and Texas NAEP scores. Here’s a table of 2011 scores.

kansas-texas-naep-test-scores-2011

Notice that when reporting scores for all students, Kansas has the highest scores, except for one tie. But when we look at subgroups, all the sudden the picture is different: Texas has the best scores in all cases, except for two ties. Similar patterns exist for previous years.

Kansas students score better than Texas students, that is true. It is also true that Texas white students score better than Kansas white students, Texas black students score better than Kansas black students, and Texas Hispanic students score better than or tie Kansas Hispanic students. The same pattern holds true for other ethnic subgroups.

How can this be? The answer is Simpson’s Paradox. A Wall Street Journal article explains: “Put simply, Simpson’s Paradox reveals that aggregated data can appear to reverse important trends in the numbers being combined.”

The Wikipedia article explains: “A paradox in which a trend that appears in different groups of data disappears when these groups are combined, and the reverse trend appears for the aggregate data. … Many statisticians believe that the mainstream public should be informed of the counter-intuitive results in statistics such as Simpson’s paradox.”

In this case, the confounding factor (“lurking” variable) is that the two states differ greatly in the proportion of white students. 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?

Kansas progressives and those who support more spending on schools say we don’t want to be like Texas. I wonder if they are aware of Simpson’s Paradox and how it conceals important facts about Kansas school performance.

Why are Kansas school standards so low?

Row of lockers in school hallwayAt 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.

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 earlier this week 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.

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 where Kansas school standards rank compared to other states. Click on them for larger versions.

naep-scale-equivalents-state-grade-4-reading-2009

Kansas Grade 4 Math Standards 01

Kansas school standards have changed

At a time when Kansas was spending more on schools due to an order from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state lowered its standards for schools. This video uses the “Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales” report from the National Center for Education Statistics to show what Kansas has done to its educational standards. View below, or click here to view on YouTube, which may work better in some cases.

For background on this issue, see Kansas has lowered its school standards and More evidence of low Kansas school standards.

Other relevant articles include Kansas needs truth about schools, Kansas school superintendents defend low standards, and Kansas school test scores, in perspective.

Kansas school test scores, in perspective

We hear a lot about how Kansas shouldn’t strive to become more like Texas, especially regarding schools. Defenders of high school spending in Kansas portray Texas as a backwater state with poor schools.

Superficially, it looks like the Kansas school spending establishment has a valid point. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test that is the same in all states, has Kansas scoring better than Texas (with one tie) in reading and math, in both fourth and eighth grade.

That makes sense to the school spending establishment, as Kansas, in 2009, spent $11,427 per student. Texas spent $11,085, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Considering only spending deemed by NCES to be for instruction, it was Kansas at $6,162 per student and Texas at $5,138.

Texas also has larger class sizes, or more precisely, a higher pupil/teacher ratio. Texas has 14.56 students for each teacher. In Kansas, it’s 13.67. (2009 figures, according to NCES.)

So for those who believe that school spending is positively correlated with student success, Kansas and Texas NAEP scores are evidence that they’re correct in their belief.

But let us take another look at the Kansas and Texas NAEP scores. Here’s a table of 2011 scores.

kansas-texas-naep-test-scores-2011

Notice that when reporting scores for all students, Kansas has the highest scores, except for one tie. But when we look at subgroups, all the sudden the picture is different: Texas has the best scores in all cases, except for two ties. Similar patterns exist for previous years.

Kansas students score better than Texas students, that is true. It is also true that Texas white students score better than Kansas white students, Texas black students score better than Kansas black students, and Texas Hispanic students score better than or tie Kansas Hispanic students. The same pattern holds true for other ethnic subgroups.

How can this be? The answer is Simpson’s Paradox. A Wall Street Journal article explains: “Put simply, Simpson’s Paradox reveals that aggregated data can appear to reverse important trends in the numbers being combined.”

The Wikipedia article explains: “A paradox in which a trend that appears in different groups of data disappears when these groups are combined, and the reverse trend appears for the aggregate data.”

In this case, the confounding factor (“lurking” variable) is that the two states differ greatly in the proportion of white students. 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?

Kansas progressives and those who support more spending on schools say we don’t want to be like Texas. I wonder if they are aware of Simpson’s Paradox.

Electing Kansas legislators: Education issues

By Dr. Walt Chappell
Member, Kansas State Board of Education

Before Kansas voters can decide who should represent them in the state Legislature, we must have accurate information. This is especially important when it comes to which candidates will make responsible decisions about how to improve our schools.

Some campaign mailers and editorials claim that student achievement has improved and funding for Kansas schools has been drastically cut. Neither is true.

To give the impression that more students are “proficient” in reading and math, the State Department of Education lowered cut scores in 2005. Since then, high school students only have to answer 50 percent of the state math questions correct to be labeled “proficient.” They also claim that any student who gets 40 percent on the state science test “Meets Standard.”

As anyone who has gone to school knows, getting 40 or 50 percent on a test is failing. Yet, by lowering the bar so low that nearly all students appear to be “proficient,” the state education staff have mislead the legislature, voters, and parents into thinking that our students are learning what they need to know to compete for jobs in the global economy.

But, this spring’s results on the ACT test show that only 29 percent of Kansas students are ready for college. On the national NAEP test, less than 40 percent are proficient. Even though Kansas scores on these national tests have stayed low for 15 years, state bureaucrats claim 86 percent of our K-12 students are now “proficient.” Education lobbyists then repeat just the inflated state test scores to demand more funding for schools.

Due to the economic recession, the base state aid for schools was cut some under governors Sebelius and Parkinson but federal stimulus money made up the difference in most districts. Under Governor Brownback, the Legislature added money back into school budgets.

However, over the past 10 years, school districts have spent $2.7 billion more to teach the same number of students. That is an increase of 56 percent. They also held back $874 million in their bank accounts last year. With more of our tax dollars being spent and kept each year to educate Kansas students while test scores remain flat, why are lobbyists claiming that schools need more money?

Significant changes must be made to prepare our students for 21st century jobs. But using taxpayer money to sue the state to increase funding and repeating false claims about student achievement will not get Kansans where we need to be.

So, it is up to the voters to elect responsible legislators, judges and school board members who will ask tough questions, demand honest answers and make the hard decisions needed to improve our public schools.

At Kansas Board of Education, some questions aren’t allowed

At a meeting of the Kansas State Board of Education, it became clear that there are certain topics and questions that aren’t to be discussed in public.

At September’s meeting (video here), BOE chair David Dennis interrupted questioning by board member Walt Chappell and proceeded to the next member’s questions. Chappell was asking whether “cut scores” had declined and whether definitions of “meets standard” and “proficiency” had changed. Dennis would not allow these questions to be answered.

It’s clear that Dennis — and the entire Kansas public school bureaucracy — doesn’t want to talk about these questions. Here’s why.

Until this year, scores on Kansas-administered and controlled assessments have been rising — “jumping,” in the recent words of Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker. But scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for Kansas students don’t reflect the same trend. Scores on this test, which is given every two years, haven’t been rising as they have on the Kansas-controlled test scores. Sometimes they decline.

We now know why the Kansas-controlled test scores have risen: The Kansas State Department of Education has lowered standards. Kansas Policy Institute has done the research.

In Removing Barriers to Better Public Education, updated in June with new data, KPI concludes: “In 2000 and 2001 a student needed at least 87% correct answers in Reading to be Proficient (the second-highest performance level), but from 2002 through 2005 they only needed 80% correct answers to be Proficient (the third highest level) on the same test; Proficiency in Math required only 48% correct answers, down from 60%.”

It’s not only KPI that has noticed that Kansas schools have low standards. Data from U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reveals that Kansas has low standards for its schools, compared to other states.

These are the types of things the Kansas school public school establishment doesn’t want Kansans to know. Board of Education chair David Dennis uses his authority to silence those who might mention these facts.

While Dennis squelches those who ask inconvenient questions about Kansas public schools, he floated a proposal to increase regulation of homeschooling in Kansas. It’s simply incredible that someone presiding over a failing system — and proud to be part of that system — would want to extend his influence and control over people who have taken great effort to escape the public schools.

Related: Test scores decline; educators quick to blame funding cuts

Kansas schools receive NCLB waiver

Last week Kansas received a waiver from the main provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The press release from Kansas State Department of Education reads in part: “With the approval, the accountability system for Kansas schools will shift from ensuring a prescribed percentage of students achieve proficiency on state reading and math assessments each year to ensuring schools achieve a prescribed level of improvement on at least one of several Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) established by the state. … With the waiver in place, the state can now look to multiple measures to assess the performance of Kansas schools in helping all students achieve.”

One of the major criticisms of NCLB is its emphasis on high-stakes testing in reading and math, which may lead to over-emphasis on these subjects at the expense of others. “Teaching to the test” is another related criticism.

But we need to be watchful of the standards Kansas state officials establish going forward. That’s because few states have lower standards than Kansas. One of the features of NCLB is that it let each state establish its own standards for evaluating student learning. What we find is states like Kansas have rising scores on their own state tests, but steady or even falling scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, called “the nation’s report card.” See Kansas needs truth about schools.

The waiver will also require Kansas to modify the way teachers are evaluated. Again, from the KSDE press release: “Another key component of the state’s waiver is related to evaluating teachers and school leaders. Among the criteria for achieving a waiver request was implementing an evaluation system that includes student achievement as a significant factor in the evaluation. The Kansas plan calls for appointing a commission to identify the most effective means of tying student achievement to teacher and leader evaluations and building that into the existing Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol (KEEP).”

KEEP is an evaluation system that was first used in the last school year on a pilot basis. In April Peter Hancock of Kansas Education Policy Report wrote: “Under guidelines for the waiver, states must either have an evaluation system in place that makes student achievement a ‘primary component’ of an evaluation, or they must commit to putting such a system in place by the end of this school year. Kansas is currently piloting a new system called the Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol (KEEP), but it does not currently have a component that includes student achievement.”

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

The fact that 33 states have been granted waivers — and more have applied — raises questions regarding public policy and rule of law. Last year David Boaz wrote regarding the increased use of waivers from federal laws and regulations “The rule of waivers is not the rule of law. … Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School says waivers raise ‘questions about whether we live under a government of laws. Congress can pass statutes that apply to some businesses and not others, but once a law has passed — and therefore is binding — how can the executive branch relieve some Americans of their obligation to obey it?'”

The No Child Left Behind law has proven to be very unpopular. The solution is to repeal it, rather than offering piecemeal waivers, especially since the waivers are accompanied by other regulation.

Harm of NCLB to be eclipsed

By Dr. Walt Chappell, member, Kansas State Board of Education.

Recent ads in Kansas newspapers have told the truth about the unacceptable level of reading and math scores for Kansas students. Yet, for Diane DeBacker, the State Education Commissioner, and education lobbyists to continue to deny these documented results from Kansas schools is a disservice to our students, their parents and taxpayers. This massive cover-up has gone on for years and needs to stop.

All outside indicators of how well our schools are doing show that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates have been a major disaster and a tremendous waste of taxpayer money. Our students are not dumb plus our teachers and school administrators are doing what they have been told. But, largely due to these bureaucratic regulations, most students who graduate from American’s schools have not been taught the employable skills needed to compete for jobs in the global economy.

This is not just a Kansas problem. Anyone willing to look at the facts can clearly see that major changes must take place in what and how we teach America’s children the concepts and skills they need to be productive adults. Yet, the Federal and State education bureaucrats and their lobbyists keep claiming that there is nothing wrong with public education — just give them more money to spend.

Since the Montoy court decision in 2005, the Kansas legislature has appropriated $1 billion more for schools. But for the past 10 years, NAEP, ACT and SAT test scores still show that only about one-third of our students are “proficient.” With this new money, Kansas school districts hired over 6,000 new employees. And, since 2005, they had accumulated $868 million in unspent cash balances — an increase of 90 percent. Clearly, spending more tax dollars is not the answer to higher student achievement.

In Kansas and the nation, one in four students do not graduate. Of those who do graduate and go to college, over 30 percent need remediation. Only half finish college yet most end up with huge student loans to repay — whether they earned a degree, can find a job, or not.

A national commission has reported that 30 percent of high school graduates do not score high enough on aptitude tests to qualify to join the military. And, since the NCLB emphasis is only on teaching and testing reading and math, few students graduate with knowledge or skills for any other career.

Clearly, the NCLB mandates from federal bureaucrats are failing to prepare our students and putting our teachers in a “no win” position of “teaching to the test.” But, the majority of the State Board has “rubber stamped” Diane DeBacker, the Kansas Commissioner of Education’s request that Kansas schools comply with the new Federal mandate to replace the Kansas standards with something new called the “Common Core Standards,” or CSS.

However, there is no research to show that CCS will improve student achievement or that they are more relevant to what students need to learn. Yet, like NCLB, they will force teachers in every school to focus primarily on just reading and math so students can pass computerized national tests — which will replace the state assessments. As a result, there will be less time to teach all other subjects such as science, technology and careers.

CCS are an unfunded federal mandate which will cost Kansas taxpayers millions of dollars to implement. These “new” standards were written by unknown, unelected, and unaccountable academics who have close ties to private publishing companies which will make billions of dollars of profits at the taxpayers, students and teachers expense. As a result, no Kansas elected official will be allowed to make key decisions about what and how students are taught in any K-12 school.

The Kansas legislature and local school boards need to be strong and say “enough of this nonsense.” NCLB has not worked and CCS will be more of the same — but worse.

Our students and nation are at risk of losing much of what previous generations have worked hard to achieve. Let’s put an end to the federal NCLB and CCS in Kansas schools, and let our teachers teach the employable skills our students need to earn a living wage and keep America strong.

More information that Chappell has gathered may be found at his website, Walt Chappell: Main Issues.

In Kansas, public school establishment attacks high standards

When a Kansas public policy think tank placed ads in Kansas newspapers calling attention to the performance of Kansas schools, the public school establishment didn’t like it. The defense of the Kansas school status quo, especially that coming from Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker, ought to cause Kansans to examine the motives of the public school spending establishment and their ability to be truthful about Kansas schools.

As an example, an ad placed by the Kansas Policy Institute in the Topeka Capital-Journal had a table of figures with the heading “2011 State Assessment Results: Percent of 11th Grade Students who Read Grade-Appropriate Material with Full Comprehension; Are Usually Accurate on All Grade-Level Math Tasks.” For the Topeka school district, the number given for reading was 36 percent, and for math, 26 percent.

The publicity given to these low numbers raised the hackles of the Kansas public school spending establishment. Here’s the nut of the disagreement:

When Kansas schoolchildren are tested using the Kansas state tests, results are categorized into one of five categories: Exemplary, exceeds standards, meets standards, approaches standard, and academic warning. Each of these categories has a definition. In its ads, KPI chose to present the number of students who fall into the two highest categories. The Kansas school bureaucracy argues that KPI should have also included students in the third category.

So what do these performance categories mean? “Exemplary,” according to Kansas State Department of Education documents, means just that: “A student scoring at the exemplary level always performs consistently and accurately when working on all grade-level mathematical tasks.”

“Exceeds standards,” for eleventh grade math, means: “A student scoring at the exceeds standard level usually performs consistently and accurately when working on all grade-level mathematical tasks.” In further detail, the standard uses these phrases: “The student demonstrates well-developed content knowledge and application skills … The student is accurate … The student usually uses multiple problem-solving techniques to accurately solve …”

“Meets standards,” again for eleventh grade math, means: “A student scoring at the meets standard level usually performs consistently and accurately when working on most grade-level mathematical tasks.” More detail includes “The student demonstrates sufficient content knowledge and application skills … The student usually understands and uses … The student is usually accurate when … The student uses some problem-solving techniques to accurately solve …”

What we’ve learned is that the Kansas public school establishment wants Kansans to be proud of the number of students who are sufficient, who usually understand, and are able to use some problem-solving techniques.

KPI, on the other hand, wants to call attention to the much smaller number of students whose knowledge is well-developed, who are accurate, and usually uses multiple problem-solving techniques. This level of achievement sounds like what parents want for their children.

If we’re concerned about our national security, we need more students to be in the two highest categories of achievement. That’s right — a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations concludes that U.S. schools are so bad that they pose a threat to national security.

For calling on Kansans to insist on high standards for their public schools, KPI has been attacked by the public school establishment, most notably from the teachers union president and other union officials.

It’s one thing for union officials to defend the current system of public education. Their job is to deflect attention from the truth in order to defend a system that is run for the benefit of adults, not children and taxpayers.

But you’d expect more from the Kansas Commissioner of Education, wouldn’t you?

Not if the commissioner is Diane DeBacker. She took to the editorial page of the Wichita Eagle to defend the status quo in Kansas public education. Her defense centers primarily around the “process.” There are experts in education, she says, who create the system of assessments and determine the level of performance that we ought to be satisfied with for Kansas schoolchildren.

The problem is that nearly everyone who looks at U.S. and Kansas schools who is not part of the public school establishment finds that schools are not performing well. Can everyone but education school establishment experts be wrong?

That’s what Debacker wants us to believe.

DeBacker writes that she is proud of student achievement in Kansas: “Since 2001, the percentage of students statewide who perform in the top three levels on state reading assessments has jumped from about 60 percent to more than 87 percent. In math, the jump has been from just more than 54 percent to nearly 85 percent.”

This rise in performance, however, is only on tests that the Kansas education establishment controls. On every measure of student performance that I know of that is independent, this rising trend in student achievement does not appear. In some measures, for some recent years, the performance of Kansas students has declined.

Instead of facing this reality, the Kansas public school spending establishment would rather attack the integrity of the Kansas Policy Institute. This is on top of constant advocacy — including multiple lawsuits — for more spending on public schools. This establishment also beats back any attempts to introduce competition and accountability to Kansas public schools through school choice programs.

Again, this is to be expected from union officials and other partisans. Their job is to direct as much spending as possible into Kansas public schools while shielding schools from meaningful accountability. If Kansans became aware of the true performance of their public schools and how much they cost, these officials wouldn’t be doing their jobs.

But DeBacker, the Commissioner of Education, ought to hold herself and her profession to a different — higher — standard. For defending the current system against those who tell the truth and advocate for higher standards, she should apologize, to students first and Kansans second.

Kansas education data collected but not shared to inform policymaking

Would you purchase a refrigerator without comparing models and reading reviews? How about buying a car without a test drive or a home without an inspection?

If you’re a taxpayer or parent of a school-age child in Kansas, that’s what your elected representatives have done with public education that spends more than half of the state’s budget and has a major influence on our children.

Continue reading from Kansas Watchdog at Education Data Collected But Not Shared to Inform Policymaking.

Kansas Speaker: Schools don’t spend all they have

Based on choices that many school districts have made in response to legislation giving them flexibility to spend fund balances, Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives Mike O’Neal questions whether a school funding crisis actually exists.

O’Neal, a Republican from Hutchinson, addressed members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club at its regular Friday luncheon meeting. He started his talk by giving a quick history of recent Kansas school finances, especially litigation.

In 2005 there was the Montoy II ruling, which resulted in a special session of the legislature in response to a ruling of the Kansas Supreme Court. O’Neal described this as “nearly a constitutional meltdown,” because the was not a party to the lawsuit, but the Court ordered the Legislature to appropriate a specific amount of money to schools, or schools would close. O’Neal said this was an unconstitutional usurpation of the separation of powers.

Nonetheless, the Legislature did respond to the Court’s order and agreed to spend as directed.

O’Neal cited two provisions in the Kansas Constitution that relate to spending and education. One, Article 2, Section 24, states: “No money shall be drawn from the treasury except in pursuance of a specific appropriation made by law.” The other is Article 6, Section 6(b), which reads: “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

Before Montoy II, this had been interpreted to require an appropriate and equitable mechanism for distributing available funds be in place. But after Montoy II, the Court interpreted this clause to apply to adequacy, that is, the Court can determine whether enough money is being spent on education.

O’Neal said there are now two pending amendments to the Kansas Constitution. One would make it clear that the Supreme Court can’t order an appropriation, and the other is a clarification to the “suitable provision” clause. “It’s trying to keep courts out of the business of education and school finance funding, and putting it in the hands of those who are elected and closest to the people,” O’Neal told the audience.

After this review of school finance litigation, O’Neal switched to the topic of whether schools are underfunded, as is the claim of the education community.

The claims of the school spending lobby are that the cuts are “devastating,” O’Neal said. But the facts, he said, do not support this contention. Since 2005 schools have enjoyed “a pretty healthy increase in funding.” The cuts that we hear about, he said, are not cuts in the sense that most people would use. Instead, there have been reductions in the amount of annual increases that have been experienced.

O’Neal said that during the last legislative session he spent a great deal of time investigating the status of school funding. He also said he tried to give schools authority to utilize funds in a way that would help address any funding crisis. He was aided by the Kansas Commissioner of Education, and also the Assistant Commissioner.

O’Neal said there are about 28 separate funds related to school funding. The Legislature created many of these in an effort to track how appropriated funds are being spent. One — the contingency reserve fund — is generally thought of as the primary reserve fund for schools.

At the end of 2011, the balance in all funds was $1.7 billion, O’Neal said, emphasizing the “b” in “billion.” He said this is a substantial increase over the prior year. Some of these funds are encumbered or spoken for, he said. In an effort to be fair, an analysis removed items like bond and interest and KPERS obligations. Taking away everything that could be argued as encumbered, O’Neal said there was still $640 million.

These balances are not distributed evenly across school districts, he added.

Referring to the 2005 Montoy decision, O’Neal said that the Court said the school finance formula distributed funds equitably, but there was not enough money in the pot. Noting the irony, he said “I would respectfully suggest today, based upon our analysis, that the Court not only got it wrong, but it was completely opposite. Why do we have a situation where some school districts have zero, with very conservative administration and management, and we have other schools districts that are sitting on tons of reserves.”

Using the Wichita school district as an example, he said the unencumbered balances are $39 million.

O’Neal asked the Kansas Department of Education this question: “Is this money that should be available to schools, and should they be utilizing that to educate Johnny and Susie?”

The answer he received was yes: There are funds, other than the contingency reserve fund, that have balances that ought to be available.

O’Neal said the analysis didn’t consider fund balances only at a particular point in time, but looked at the trend in balances over a period of five years. These balances, he said, are increasing over time, and at a “pretty hefty rate.”

The balances in some funds — he mentioned special education and at-risk — are growing rapidly. This, he said, is an indication that schools can’t spend all the money the state has sent. “But, it’s a devastating situation nevertheless, according to the education community.”

In response to recent cuts in Kansas base state aid per pupil funding, O’Neal said in 2011 the Legislature passed a bill giving school districts authority to spend up to $154 million to back-fill losses in base state aid. KNEA — the teachers union — and the Kansas Association of School Boards approved the bill.

But O’Neal said he was terribly disappointed in the result. Only 77 school districts (Kansas has nearly 300 districts) elected to spend any of the fund balances. The total amount involved was $23.4 million, which O’Neal said was 15 percent of the total authority granted by the Legislature, and a much smaller fraction of the total unencumbered fund balances.

Based on this, O’Neal questioned whether school funding is really inadequate. He said that schools could use these fund balances to compensate for cuts in base state aid, and could avoid laying off teachers. But many districts chose not to spend fund balances.

Regarding the ending balances in the Kansas general fund, O’Neal said there will be calls to spend more on education. “My question becomes: If you’re not spending the money you have already, why do you want the state to spend down its reserves, and send you more money that’s likely only to end up increasing some of your ending balances.”

Kansas school funding formula is badly broken

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute.

Data from the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) shows school districts’ unencumbered operating carryover cash reserves (excluding capital, debt and federal funds) as of July 1, 2011 were at a record-high $868.3 million. All last year districts said funding shortfalls were prompting them to cut teachers and programs. Meanwhile, most districts didn’t spend all of their state and local tax aid and increased their operating carryover cash reserves by $85.7 million.

This isn’t a one-time phenomenon; 2011 was the sixth consecutive year (since the courts said schools were under-funded) that some state and local tax aid was used to increase operating carryover cash reserves. Total operating carryover increased by $410.1 million since 2005.

If the school funding formula is consistently providing more money than necessary to operate schools, we should put the money where it’s really needed or give it back to taxpayers. That may be a controversial statement, but we can’t let controversy get in the way of providing kids with a quality education and a fiscally stable state after they graduate.

A large portion of the buildup in carryover cash is in funds set aside for special education, academically at-risk, and bilingual students. The balances in these funds alone have grown by $164.5 million; their total is $314.4 million. This is money specifically allocated by the funding formula for those purposes; the fact that this much apparently wasn’t needed is a clear indication that the formula is badly broken.

Kansas Policy Institute has been researching this issue since 2009. At first, some districts said the money wasn’t there; others said it existed at one point but had been spent. Still others said the cash existed but couldn’t be spent.

There is a legitimate issue of needing some degree of carryover to manage cash flow, especially since the state has been late sending money to districts over the last two years. But even that reason has an element of ‘the dog ate my homework’ for many districts.

Data collected from KSDE shows that districts’ operating carryover ratio last year (beginning carryover cash divided by operating costs) ranged from 1 percent (USD 312 Haven) to 64 percent (USD 502 Lewis), with the median at 16 percent. If Haven and dozens of other districts consistently manage cash flow with less than 10 percent carryover cash ratio, those with ratios of 20 percent or greater could do so with much smaller carryover balances.

Fortunately, the Kansas Legislature recognized the absurdity of having carryover cash pile up and gave schools full authority to transfer carryover balances from previously-restricted funds to offset up to $156 million in Base State Aid reductions over the last two years. (Another quirk of the formula caused base state aid to decline even though total state aid increased.) KSDE reports that only a small portion has been put to use so far.

The school funding formula should be based on what it costs to achieve required outcomes and also have districts operating and organized in a cost-effective manner.

Believe it or not, that wasn’t the basis of the last school lawsuit.

How’s that for a broken system?

Kansas school spending: the deception

At a September rally at the Kansas Capitol, Mark Desetti presented a picture of Kansas school spending that is accurate but deceptive, all at the same time.

Desetti is Director, Legislative and Political Advocacy at Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union. In other words, he’s a lobbyist whose job is to try and garner as much money as possible for the members of his union — all in the name of “the kids,” of course.

In video of the rally, he told the audience that “Base funding for education in Kansas has dropped to the 1999 level for 2012, and that’s not adjusted for inflation.”

Desetti is correct — nearly so — in this assertion. But “base funding,” also known as base state aid per pupil, tells only part of the school spending story. And a small part, at that.

According to the Kansas State Department of Education, BSAPP for the school year starting in 1999 was $3,770. For the school year starting in 2011 (fiscal year 2012), the figure is $3,780. (Let’s not quibble over the $10 difference.)

Listening to school spending advocates like Desetti, you might think that BSAPP is the only funding that schools receive. But BSAPP is only part of the funds that schools receive.

For the 1999 school year, Kansas spent $1,815,684,144 on state aid to schools. For the 2009 school year, the most recent year for which KSDE supplies data, state aid was $2,867,835,438 — an increase of over one billion dollars, or 58 percent.

Looking at total Kansas school spending for the same years, spending increased from $3,063,233,269 to $5,589,549,135 — an increase of about 2.5 billion dollars, or 82 percent.

These are the types of figures that school spending advocates don’t like to talk about. Instead, they focus on a small portion of total spending — one that has gone down quite a bit from its recent peak — and use it as a surrogate for total school spending.

Is this telling a lie? No. Desetti is correct — as much as he wanted to be. But if we look at the entire spectrum of school spending in Kansas, we see that Desetti — like most of the school spending advocacy and bureaucracy in Kansas — is deceptive in focusing on only one component of school spending.

It’s no wonder that Desetti and others won’t appear in public forums where they don’t control the message.

Wichita school fund balances again an issue

The issue of school fund balances in Wichita and Kansas is a serious issue that deserves discussion. At the same time, we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of Kansas school issues that are even more important. But school officials need to be held accountable for their deception of the public, most notably through straw man arguments.

When Dr. Walt Chappell, an elected member of the Kansas State Board of Education, used a slot on the public agenda to address the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, his shabby treatment by the board was one issue. But the more important issue is the substance of Chappell’s remarks, and the reaction by school district officials.

Chappell asked the board to use money socked away in various fund balances to balance the budget. In his written remarks, he wrote: “The Wichita school board does not need to lay off teachers, raise property taxes or cut instructional programs to balance next year’s budget.”

The Wichita school district, like many across the state, has unused balances in a variety of funds. Some of these funds, by law, must be used only for certain purposes. But this year the Kansas Legislature passed a law that gives school districts greater flexibility in using these fund balances.

Even through the unused fund balances have been restricted to certain uses, school districts have always been able to “spend” them by simply not transferring so much to the funds. But there’s been an incentive to make transfers to these funds, as once the money is in certain funds, school districts can hoard it.

In his response to Chappell, and also in a recent letter to the Wichita Eagle, board member Lynn Rogers tried to explain why these fund balances are not the solution that Chappell and others say they are. His primary argument is that fund balances are needed for cash management purposes. An example: “Special education is a clear example of why having a fund balance is good business practice. We ended the past fiscal year with $12.5 million in the special education fund. Special education salaries are about $12.1 million between July 1 and the next state aid payment received in October.”

Everyone can understand that. The need for fund balances to manage cashflow is legitimate and not part of the argument of those who advocate using fund balances for other purposes. For Rogers to use this as part of his argument is an example of a straw man argument. In using this fallacy, Rogers replaces his opponent’s argument with a “superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition.” Then he refutes it. The appearance, if you’re not watching carefully, is that Rogers has refuted the original argument. But he hasn’t.

What Rogers and other school spending advocates don’t talk about is the rise in the fund balances over years. In a letter to the Wichita Eagle George Pearson wrote that Rogers provided “accurate but incomplete information” on the school fund balances. Pearson explained: “USD 259 had $45 million in those funds at the beginning of this fiscal year. Five years ago, those balances were $31 million. The buildup in those balances comes from state and local tax dollars received in prior years that haven’t been spent. SB 111 authorizes USD 259 to use about $16 million in any manner the district chooses — ironically, about the same amount it collected but didn’t spend over the past five years.”

This is what the arguments of Rogers and the school spending lobby don’t explain: Why do the fund balances rise year after year, and rise faster than the overall level of school spending? The only explanation is that money is added to the funds faster than it is spent, year after year. Schools have not spent all the money we’ve sent them — despite their constant poor-mouthing.

This issue, while important, is not the most serious issue facing Wichita and Kansas schools. For example, most people would be surprised — and shocked — to learn that only 26 percent of Kansas students that take the ACT test are ready for college-level coursework in all four areas that ACT considers. (See Most Kansas students not ready for college.) While this result was slightly better than the national average, it means that three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates need to take one or more remedial college courses.

It is important that citizens understand the issue of the unspent fund balances. It’s also important that they are aware of the refusal of school districts and school spending advocates to deal forthrightly with the public on this issue. It provides insight into the nature of our public schools, and why reform is so difficult.

For more articles on the fund balances, click on Kansas school fund balances. Chappell’s written remarks are below (use the toolbar to zoom or for a full-screen view), and video of his appearance before the Wichita school board follows that.

Wichita, Kansas (USD 259) School Budget Recommendations

Wichita school board: critics not welcome

A recent meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, provided insight as to the insularity of the board members and district staff, and as to how little meaningful discussion or debate takes place at board meetings.

At the June 20th meeting, Dr. Walt Chappell, an elected member of the Kansas State Board of Education, used a slot on the public agenda to address the board about the upcoming budget. Chappell received a chilly reception — to say the least — from board president Connie Dietz. Chappell has been outspoken in his criticism of the way the state spends money on schools. Chappell knows, as do other critics of the Kansas school education bureaucracy, that if you’re not a team player, you’re going to suffer abuse from the education bureaucracy and its supporters.

Regardless of the validity of Chappell’s remarks to the board — more on that in another article — the attitude of Dietz is worse than simply being rude. It is shutting up your critics simply because you control the gavel. It is boorish and bullying behavior. It is contrary to good government.

The balance of power at meetings like these is all in favor of the board. Citizens, even elected officials like Chappell, may speak for a short period of time. Then board members may speak at length without fear of being held accountable for their remarks, because if the citizen were to speak even one word out of turn, the board would shut them up.

This is at a school district where much board meeting time is devoted to “feel good” measures such as the lengthy goodbye to departing board member Kevass Harding at the same meeting. That had nothing to do with public policy. It was constructive in no way except to board members, district staff, and Harding’s ego. By the way, he used the opportunity and time to announce his future political ambitions.

But when citizens and officials like Chappell speak — even though they may speak about important and weighty matters of policy — their time is strictly regulated. If they disagree with school district orthodoxy they may be scolded and lectured with no chance to defend themselves or rebut false statements and nonsensical arguments from board members or district staff. There is nothing resembling discussion or debate except among board members and district staff — all who drink from the same ideological fountain.

It’s not the first time this has happened to Chappell at the Wichita school board. Two years ago a similar incident took place. In my coverage, I wrote: “Certainly these three board members were dismissive of Chappell and his input. This is characteristic of this board and the entire district. They’re willing to accept citizen input when citizens agree with them. Otherwise, watch out.”

The district, however, believes there is debate. In a recent letter to the Wichita Eagle, board member Lynn Rogers claimed that budget decisions “are being debated heavily.”

The debate, however, is not inclusive or fruitful. Few citizens are even remotely aware of the level of school spending, whether spending is going up or down, and whether spending is related to student achievement. Last year the Kansas Policy Institute commissioned a public opinion survey that revealed just how uninformed and misinformed the citizens of Kansas are on school spending matters. National surveys have produced similar findings.

Instead, the debates about policies and budgets take place largely among those who benefit from school spending and increases. And, of course, in the one-sided lectures from the school board bench. Rogers called Chappell’s facts “misleading” despite the fact that the supporting documentation comes from the district itself and the state department of education.

This is not the first time that members like Rogers have revealed just how out of touch they are with the concerns of citizens and how misinformed they can be. For example, he told me during a meeting that responding to requests for information is a burden that prevents the district from educating kids.

In another instance, Rogers said “I know there are kids from many Catholic schools that have come to public schools when the Catholic schools have kicked them out.” It turns out that the Wichita Catholic schools expel very few students, less than five per year on average.

Diversity? It’s a sought-after goal of the district. In fact, the district has a committee with the title “Diversity, Equity and Accountability Committee.” But diversity in thought and opinion must not be part of what’s desired. The belligerent and disrespectful behavior of board members, particularly president Connie Dietz, is a deterrent to parents, teachers, students, and citizens who want to be involved and have their voices heard. That is, unless they agree with and praise the board and district.

Without the involvement of everyone, the board and district make decisions without all relevant facts and input, and often with incorrect information about many vitally important matters. That, I believe, is they way they like it.

Kansas needs truth about schools

A recent editorial by Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane M. DeBacker contains several themes of self-congratulation that require a second look. Her article is Thank teachers for hard work, dedication as printed in the opinion section of The Wichita Eagle.

Perhaps the most harmful of Dr. DeBacker’s statements is her claim of rising student achievement: “One of the remarkable stories in Kansas education is student achievement. For 10 years straight, Kansas public school students have shown improvement on state reading and math assessments.” A look at the record, however, should temper our enthusiasm.

It’s true that performance on the assessments that are under the control of Kansas are rising, as shown in the accompanying chart that shows the composite score for math and reading in grades four and eight. (Scores before 2006 are not directly comparable, as the state moved to a new assessment then.)

Kansas test scores and NAEP scoresComposite scores for grades 4 and 8 reading and math for Kansas state tests and for Kansas students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

But scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for Kansas students don’t reflect the same trend. Scores on this test, which is given every two years, aren’t rising like the Kansas-controlled test scores.

This is not new news to the education establishment in Kansas, as reported in New Kansas test scores not good news and elsewhere. Dr. DeBacker would do Kansans a service by explaining the difference in trends between the two series of test scores. Not to mention the fact that the Kansas tests report that over 80 percent of Kansas students score at a level deemed “at or above standard.” On the federal NAEP test, the corresponding numbers are around 40 percent deemed to be “proficient.” That’s quite a difference in standards.

In her op-ed, DeBacker also praised Kansas schools for the proportion of students taking the ACT college entrance exam and for the good scores they received. What she left out was the fact that only 26 percent of Kansas students that take the ACT test are ready for college-level coursework in all four areas that ACT considers. (See Most Kansas students not ready for college.) While this result was slightly better than the national average, it means that three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates need to take one or more remedial college courses.

In introducing her article, DeBacker mentioned “a growing movement that questions the value of public education.” We as a state would do better if the public school establishment, which she heads, would honestly and truthfully report the condition of Kansas education — the good and the bad.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Thursday April 14, 2011

Kansas State Board of Education vs. Walt Chappell. There is another development in the tenure of Walt Chappell, Kansas State Board of Education member. Chappell holds some opinions that differ from the rest of the board, or at least the majority of the board, and they don’t like Chappell expressing his opinions in newspaper columns, etc. The board would rather have a unified front, even if the position taken is incorrect. Of particular, the issue of the unspent Kansas school fund balances has been prominent. Kansas Watchdog reports on a recent meeting of the board where the issue of Chappell and his speech was an issue.

Protest on tax day. A message from Wichita State University Students for Liberty: “You are cordially invited to a tax protest on Friday, 15 April at 3:00 pm. It will be held on the southeast corner of 21st Street and Rock Road. I and several members of WSU Students for Liberty will be in attendance, and we welcome yours as well.” For more information see Wichita State University Students for Liberty.

Tax day tea party events. AFP Kansas has a list of tea party events at Kansas Tea Parties. Nothing in Wichita, though.

Steineger, Kansas senator, to address Pachyderms. This Friday (April 15) Kansas Senator Chris Steineger will speak to the members and guests of the Wichita Pachyderm Club on the topic “Using Business Principles to Restructure State and Local Government For Long-Term Efficiency.” Steineger, of Kansas City, has served in the Kansas Senate since 1997 and in December switched his affiliation from the Democratic to Republican party. Steineger has voted with Republicans on fiscal issues for many years. Explaining why he switched parties, he wrote “I am a fiscal hawk who believes Americans have been borrowing, spending, and living beyond their means for too long.” Steineger has spoken at events organized by Americans for Prosperity.

Trade protectionism makes us poorer. The president of a large labor union is urging President Obama to not implement pending free trade agreements. Should we have free trade with other countries, or not? Richard W. Rahn explains, starting with the complexity of even the most humble and simple of consumer goods — the pencil — as highlighted in yesterday’s article: “As simple as a pencil is, it contains materials from all over the world (special woods, paint, graphite, metal for the band and rubber for the eraser) and requires specialized machinery. How much would it cost you to make your own pencils or even grow your own food? Trade means lower costs and better products, and the more of it the better. Adam Smith explained that trade, by increasing the size of the market for any good or service, allows the efficiencies of mass production, thus lowering the cost and the ultimate price to consumers. … It is easy to see the loss of 200 jobs in a U.S. textile mill that produces men’s T-shirts, but it is not as obvious to see the benefit from the fact that everyone can buy T-shirts for $2 less when they come from China, even though the cotton in the shirts was most likely grown in the United States. Real U.S. disposable income is increased when we spend less to buy foreign-made products because we are spending less to get more — and that increase in real income means that U.S. consumers can spend much more on U.S.-made computer equipment, air travel or whatever. … The benefits of trade are not always easy to see or quickly understand, and so it is no surprise that so many commentators, politicians, labor leaders and others get it wrong.”

City government under control. From Reason.tv: “While cities across the country are cutting services, raising taxes and contemplating bankruptcy, something extraordinary is happening in a suburban community just north of Atlanta, Georgia. Since incorporating in 2005, Sandy Springs has improved its services, invested tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure and kept taxes flat. And get this: Sandy Springs has no long-term liabilities. This is the story of Sandy Springs, Georgia — the city that outsourced everything.” Click here for video.

Kansas school teacher cuts

As Kansas struggles with its budget and decides what to do with public schools, advocates of public school spending exaggerate claims of pending job cuts and fail to take advantage of an opportunity to improve our state’s base of teachers.

Misinformation about school employment is plentiful. An article from the Hutchinson News (Budget cuts a way of life for Kansas school districts, December 26, 2010) is typical: “More than 1,000 teachers and 900 classified school employees have been cut out of the system.”

The Kansas State Department of Education surveyed school districts asking how many positions were reduced or eliminated due to lack of funding for the 2009-2010 school year. The answer was 1,160 teachers.

Actual employment figures from the KSDE indicate that for the 2008-2009 school year, Kansas schools employed 35,438 teachers. For 2009-2010 34,985 teachers were employed. That’s a drop of 453 teachers, or quite a bit less than half of the 1,160 teachers schools said they would have to cut.

Looking at total employment, schools claimed they would have to cut 3,704 jobs. The actual number of jobs lost was 562.

We see that the public schools, like many government agencies, exaggerate the effects of spending cuts — or even a slowdown in the rate of growth of spending. Whether this exaggeration is purposeful and dishonest is for others to decide. But this tendency is something to keep in mind as school districts across the state tell taxpayers and legislators what the effect of reduced school funding will be.

Cuts could be beneficial

While schools don’t like to see employment cuts, especially for teachers, cuts could be used to beneficial effect if not for the rules that most school districts have adopted. These union work rules require that teachers be laid off in order of seniority. Therefore, the teachers with the longest service will be the last to be let go.

It might seem like retaining the most experienced teachers is a beneficial policy. But research tells us that longevity in the classroom is not related to teacher effectiveness. One study found results that are typical: “There appear to be important gains in teaching quality in the first year of experience and smaller gains over the next few career years. However, there is little evidence that improvements continue after the first three years.”

Another result: “Thus we conclude that novice teachers in the sample are less effective than teachers in the sample with some experience, but beyond the first couple of years, more experienced teachers are no more effective than those with a couple of years of experience.”

So when school districts retain their most experienced teachers, they are making a decision to keep their most highly-paid teachers, using reasoning that has found not to hold up in the real world. This causes stress on school budgets for something that doesn’t improve student learning.

If Kansas schools would lay off their most ineffective teachers first, that would improve the overall quality of teachers in Kansas schools. But Kansas has weak policies in place to determine which teachers are effective.

Instead, Kansas schools will inform parents that class sizes will get larger. That might be true. But we now know it’s much better for a child to be in a large class with an effective teacher than to be in a small class with an ineffective teacher. But the policies of Kansas schools will not let this improvement in teacher quality take place.

Is it all about the kids?

Kansans ought to ask who the public schools serve. The schools, of course, say it’s all about the kids. But when the schools have work rules that protect the most expensive teachers when these teachers are not the most effective based solely on longevity, we see that the public schools are like most government programs: they exist to protect themselves, not their customers (students) and funders (taxpayers).

Kansas schools cut, yet fail to spend

According to an Associated Press article as printed in the Wichita Eagle, Kansas schools cut 816 certified staff this year, including 653 teachers. The article cites school spending advocates who warn that without additional revenue for schools, further cuts — even school closings — may happen.

But in spite of this dreary picture, Kansas schools have failed to spend all the funds at their disposal.

Kansas school carryover fundsKansas school carryover funds. Click for a larger view.

According to figures supplied by the Kansas State Department of Education as presented at KansasOpenGov.org, carryover cash balances have increased at the same time schools have laid off teachers and threatened to cut programs and close schools.

From 2009 to 2010, for all school districts in Kansas, carryover funds increased from $699,150,812 to $774,648,615. That’s an increase of 9.7 percent. These numbers exclude debt service and capital outlay funds. Those funds have been mostly increasing, too.

School spending advocates argue that these carryover, or unencumbered, funds are necessary for various reasons, and they’re correct. Most businesses or organizations need a cushion in the bank to pay bills before revenue comes in.

But the only way the balances in these funds can grow — year after year as they have — is that schools simply aren’t spending all the money they’ve been given. (Schools did spend some of these funds, however, in spite of claiming these funds couldn’t be spent.)

School districts, aided by a sympathetic Wichita Eagle editorial board, argue that outsiders simply can’t understand the intricacies of Kansas school finance.

If that’s true, we have to wonder how the Wichita Eagle editorial board can claim to understand Kansas school finance. And how can journalists, legislators, the governor, school board members, parents, and taxpayers understand well enough to provide oversight and accountability?

Instead, we are to be left at the mercy of a handful of experts who are the only people who understand Kansas school finance. All of them, of course, employed by the public school bureaucracy, with a vested interest in seeing it grow at the exclusion of everything else.

That’s nonsense. But it’s the way schools like it. The less that ordinary Kansans know about schools, their financing, and their operations, the better for school spending advocates.

Kansas school spending advocates sue; opportunity for reform is overlooked

Lost in the news last week was the announcement of a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against Kansas taxpayers in order to gain more funding for public schools. But now that the election is over, Kansans are starting to turn their attention to this lawsuit. So far, the discussion is missing something that could solve our problems without spending any additional money.

In its search to find a solution to the problem of funding its government schools, Kansas is overlooking a sure solution: widespread school choice.

While proponents of public school spending argue that school choice programs drain away dollars from needy, underfunded public schools, this is not the case.

In 2007 The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the study School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. According to the executive summary: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.”

How can this be? The public school spending lobby, which in Kansas is primarily the Kansas National Education Association (KNEA, the teachers union) and the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB), would have us believe that educational freedom would kill public education. They say that school choice program drain scarce resources from the public school system.

But when researchers looked at the actual effects, they found this: “In nearly every school choice program, the dollar value of the voucher or scholarship is less than or equal to the state’s formula spending per student. This means states are spending the same amount or less on students in school choice programs than they would have spent on the same students if they had attended public schools, producing a fiscal savings.”

So at the state level, school choice programs save money. They don’t cost money to implement; they save money.

At the local level, schools districts have more money, on a per-student basis, when school choice programs are used: “When a student uses school choice, the local public school district no longer needs to pay the instructional costs associated with that student, but it does not lose all of its per-student revenue, because some revenue does not vary with enrollment levels. Thus, school choice produces a positive fiscal impact for school districts as well as for state budgets.”

The problem is that while school choice programs save money for the state and its taxpayers, it reduces money flowing to the public, or government, schools. School spending advocates don’t like that. While these advocates, such as Mark Tallman, assistant executive director of the KASB, present themselves as advocates for Kansas schoolchildren, their true function is to direct as much spending as possible to Kansas public schools.

If we need evidence of the never-ending appetite of schools for money and what spending advocates like Tallman consider their mission, consider a story told by Kansas House Speaker Pro Tem Arlen Siegfreid (R-Olathe) of a conversation he had with Tallman: “During our discussion I asked Mr. Tallman if we (the State) had the ability to give the schools everything he asked for would he still ask for even more money for schools. His answer was, ‘Of course, that’s my job.'”

Besides full-fledged school choice, charter schools save money too. Kansas has one of the weakest charter school laws in the nation, described by the Center for Education Reform as a “law in name only.” As a result, there are very few charter schools in Kansas. That’s the way Tallman and other Kansas school spending advocates like it.

What is the outlook for the future? So far, I am not aware of any legislators who are proposing school choice or charter school legislation. While incoming governor Sam Brownback had an education plan as part of his campaign, he did not campaign on charter schools or teacher merit pay. School choice was not mentioned, either.

The danger over the next few years is that Kansas will waste its time fussing over a school financing formula that, in the end, still funds a government school monopoly at the exclusion of choice, even the mildest form of choice: charter schools. Consequently Kansas misses out on the improvement and diversity that choice brings. Brownback and the new conservative legislators should take this opportunity to radically reform Kansas education.

Balance Kansas budget without raising sales tax

The following article is by Dr. Walt Chappell, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education. A version appeared in the Wichita Eagle. Chappell has offered testimony to the Kansas Legislature on many ways that schools can reduce spending and fulfill their mission at the same time. See Kansas school district consolidation, reorganization testimony heard and At House Appropriations, Chappell presents Kansas school funding ideas.

On Saturday, a legislative update was held in Wichita. It is clear that serious budget decisions must be made in the next two weeks by our legislators.

Fortunately, existing cash reserves, cost controls and reduced spending can help balance the State budget to keep our schools strong and provide essential services for our most vulnerable disabled and senior citizens. If necessary, additional revenue can come by raising cigarette, alcohol and soft drink taxes without increasing the regressive sales tax.

As one of the people elected to help maintain strong schools, I am certain that positive actions can be taken to support our teachers and students. The objectives of each elected official I know are not to lay off any classroom teacher. We also want to keep a broad curriculum for our students including vocational courses, art, music, P.E. and driver’s education.

Here are some facts provided by the Kansas Department of Education and the Legislative Research Office.

  • During the past 10 years, Kansas school district spending from all funding sources has jumped from $3 billion per year to $5.5 billion. This is a $2.5 billion per year increase to teach the same number of students.

  • School districts started this school year with $1.5 billion in carryover cash balances. Of that amount, $700 million were in operating accounts which have increased by 53% in just four years. For example, Wichita schools began the year with $95.7 million in operating cash reserves. It estimates that $66 million remains for next year. There is no budget justification for eliminating any teacher’s job.
  • Spending more money on schools does not produce higher student achievement. During these same ten years, NAEP, ACT and SAT national test scores for Kansas students have remained flat. About 25 percent of our K-12 students still drop-out before graduation. Wichita has 16 of the lowest performing schools yet has a higher than average cost-per-pupil.
  • Only half of the people hired by school districts in Kansas are certified teachers. The rest are non-instructional or administrative staff. With the additional $1 billion the Legislature gave to school districts after the 2005 Montoy lawsuit, 6,000 people were hired. Only one-third were teachers. In the past four years, non-instructional operating costs are up $373 million across Kansas.

School districts receive 52 percent of the state budget. Legislators must cut education funding to balance the budget. To offset these cuts, school districts can easily use a portion of the hundreds of millions in cash they already have in operating accounts. If more money is needed, they can cut non-instructional and administrative costs. No teachers should be laid off or courses eliminated.

Our legislators have a tough job ahead. Each of them is trying hard to make sound budget decisions based on facts. We can help them by getting informed and encouraging them to keep essential services without raising sales or property taxes.

To see district cash balances and test scores, go to Main Issues www.chappell4ksboe.com

Kansas news digest

News from alternative media around Kansas for March 16, 2010.

School consolidation measures deliberated in House

(Kansas Liberty) “The Kansas House tentatively approved a plan today that would allow three or more school districts to consolidate into two districts. House Bill 2704 originally included two consolidation-promoting components, but one of the components was stripped off on the House floor under the direction of Rep. Bill Light, R-Rolla.”

Concealed-carry bill stalls in committee

(Kansas Liberty) “Legislation promoting an alteration to the state’s concealed-carry law has been sitting in the House Federal and State Affairs committee since its February hearing. House Bill 2685 would require any state building that posts a sign prohibiting concealed-carry to have adequate security measures in place.”

Debate — who decides supremacy of Health Care Freedom Amendment?

(Kansas Liberty) “Conferees testifying on the Health Care Freedom Amendment butted heads today on whether the measure would provide the state with adequate protection from being forced to comply with any health-care mandates that could be passed by the federal government.”

Sales tax exemption repeals a possibility for nonprofits, other organizations

(Kansas Reporter) “TOPEKA, Kan. – Kansas business owners and non-profit service organizations urged lawmakers Monday to reject proposals that would require groups as diverse as utility customers, Girl Scouts and coin-operated laundry owners to pay more sales taxes.”

Mega school districts would save millions, panel told

(Kansas Reporter) “TOPEKA, Kan. – Consolidating Kansas’ nearly 300 school districts into a fraction of that number, with 10,000 students in each district, would cut potentially hundreds of million of dollars in duplicative administrative costs, backers of such a plan told a Kansas House panel this week.”

KDOT looks at Amtrak expansion

(Kansas Reporter) “TOPEKA, Kan. – The Kansas House voted 115 to five Thursday to give Kansas Secretary of Transportation Deb Miller the ability to prepare for expanded rail service in the state. That same day, Amtrak released a study concerning the feasibility of such passenger rail service, which was presented to the House Transportation committee.”

Tobacco tax plan hurts mom-and-pop stores, opponents say

(Kansas Reporter) “TOPEKA, Kan. – Tom Palace considered wearing a bulls-eye costume to testify before the Kansas Senate Assessment and Taxation committee hearing Wednesday. As executive director of the Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association of Kansas, Palace feels that the legislature’s proposed options for additional revenue target his industry at every turn. Cigarette, liquor, fuel and sales taxes are all options that the legislature is examining to cover an estimated $400 million budget shortfall.”

Kansas panel changes proposed property tax lid

(Kansas Reporter) “TOPEKA, Kan. – Kansas House Taxation committee members voted to send a proposed lid on new property tax increases to the House floor Tuesday after first changing a key condition in the plan.”

Spokesmen for developmentally disabled ask Supreme Court to halt spending cuts

(Kansas Health Institute News Service) “TOPEKA – A restraining order against the State of Kansas was requested Friday by advocates for the developmentally disabled, who said recent budget cuts are harmful and in violation of federal laws and the state constitution. ‘Thousands of people are hurting out there,’ said Tom Laing, executive director of Interhab, a group representing community programs for the developmentally disabled. ‘We should not want to live in a state where these things are allowed.'”

Legislature wades into tax bills this week

(Kansas Health Institute News Service) “TOPEKA – After weeks of talking about weak revenues and budget cuts, the Legislature this week takes up various tax proposals ranging from elimination of sales tax exemptions to a new levy on soda pop and other sugared drinks.”

Governor says votes there for major tax increase

(Kansas Health Institute News Service) “TOPEKA – There are enough votes to pass a $300 million to $400 million tax increase, the governor told KHI News Service. But still uncertain, he said, is the specific mix of taxes legislators will settle on. They currently have before them proposals to increase the general sales tax but also tobacco and alcohol. The Senate also is considering a measure that for the first time tax the sugar in soft drinks and other sugary beverages. The Senate and House this week also are looking at bills that would repeal sales tax exemptions.”

Sunshine Week 2010: Sunshine is the Best Disinfectant

(Kansas Watchdog) “Our nation’s founding documents state clearly that the people, endowed with fundamental, inalienable rights, are the masters of government, which derives its just power from the consent of the governed. But, can consent be given without knowledge of what is consented to? Citizens are in an uphill battle against the inertia of decades of apathy. Adding urgency to the battle is the dramatic growth of government influence, power and complexity both nationally and locally.”

A Look Inside the Kansas State Board of Education

(Kansas Watchdog) “The March meeting of the Kansas State Board of Education made no headlines in the major media but the future of Kansas’ youth, the financial future of the state and its citizens’ freedoms all depend, in part, on how the Board works and the decisions it makes. A few glimpses into the Board’s operation are telling.”

My view: Campaign Finance should cover judicial retention elections

(Kansas Watchdog) “Regardless of where one is on the political spectrum, open government, open records and transparency are issues that everyone can agree on. When Tom Witt from the Kansas Equality Coalition asked me to speak in favor of transparency in judicial retention elections, I knew that was an issue I had no choice but to embrace.”

Governor Mark Parkinson on the Economy, the Budget and Kansas Health

(State of the State KS) “Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson (D) addresses budget shortfalls, key Capitol legislative issues and the need for bipartisan work in Kansas and Washington.”

Budget Director Duane Goossen On This Year’s $106 Million Problem

(State of the State KS) “Budget Director Duane Goossen talks about new information the state is short $106 million for 2010 and what should be done to fix it.”

School Consolidation Considered as Solution To Budget Crisis

(State of the State KS) “The House Education Budget committee heard debate on a bill Thursday that would consolidate the current 293 school districts to about 45 across the state.”

Kansas schools fail to make cut for grants

Last year Secretary of Education Arne Duncan created a program named “Race to the Top” which would make grants to states that are willing to make certain reforms. Two such reforms prominently mentioned by Duncan and President Barack Obama are charter schools and merit pay for teachers.

We now know that Kansas was not selected to receive a grant, at least not in the first round. Kansas had applied for $166 million.

Kansas is falling behind the rest of the states in the types of innovation that Race to the Top was designed to promote. Specifically, the Kansas charter school law is weak. Anyone wishing to start a charter school must seek approval of the local school district. Most school districts in Kansas, especially the Wichita district, are hostile towards any lessening of the government school monopoly. As a result, there are very few charter schools in Kansas. It is likely that this played a role in the decision not to award a grant to Kansas.

Kansas is also unlikely to implement any sort of merit pay for teachers. As I reported last year in Kansas school establishment rejects reform: “In particular, the document Teaching in Kansas Commission: Final report, makes it clear that teacher merit pay in Kansas is not desired unless it is so watered-down as to be meaningless.”

Besides resisting merit pay, the Kansas National Education Association (or KNEA, the teachers union) is also opposed to charter schools. The national teachers union is too, as the Wall Street Journal reported last year: “NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told the Washington Post last week that charter schools and merit pay raise difficult issues for his members, yet Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said states that block these reforms could jeopardize their grant eligibility.”

It turns out that the prediction of Secretary Duncan was fulfilled. Kansas, with a teachers union that blocks reform at every step, is failing to keep up with innovations in education. Kansas should implement these reforms for their own good.

For Kansas teachers union, fund balances are an illusion, not a solution

Today’s edition of Under the Dome Today — that’s the house organ of the Kansas National Education Association (or KNEA, the teachers union) — contains a story with the headline “Anti-Government Group launches another attack on public education.”

A more accurate headline might read “School spending advocacy group refuses to acknowledge budget solution that Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis says could be used.” But that’s a tad wordy.

The headline is over a story reporting on Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert’s testimony to the Kansas House Appropriations Committee. In this testimony, according to the writer for the teachers union, Trabert “gave a presentation attacking the K-12 education system.”

KPI has found that Kansas schools are sitting on fund balances of some $700 million that could be used to make it through a tough budget year. Using these funds could let schools operate without making cuts to their budgets, and without increasing taxes or finding “revenue enhancements.”

School spending advocates dispute this. But Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis agrees with Trabert that these fund balances could be used — if the schools wanted to.

Schools, however, would rather find additional sources of revenues. Everyone else calls these taxes.

Chief school spending lobbyist Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) argued, according to the report, “many of the funds Trabert labels reserves are restricted or necessary to cover costs before government payments are received.”

That’s true. But this argument, just like a faulty op-ed written by Kansas school board member David Dennis, says nothing about whether the balances in these funds are too high, too low, or just right.

The evidence we do have — uncovered by KPI — tells us that the balances in these funds are more than needed. That’s because they’ve been growing rapidly, by 53 percent over the last four years. The only way the fund balances can grow is if schools aren’t spending the money as fast as it’s going in the funds.

Mentioning facts like this somehow, according to the Kansas teachers union, constitutes an attack on public schools.

Here’s a question that Kansans should insist that school spending advocates like the Kansas teachers union and the Kansas Association of School Boards answer: Why did all school districts in Kansas except four declined to participate in efficiency audits last year? That’s an attack on the Kansas taxpayer, and also on Kansas schoolchildren who aren’t benefiting from the inefficiencies these audits could reveal.

Lawsuits and tax increases not necessary to fund Kansas schools

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute President

A recent commentary by Kansas State Board of Education member David Dennis said educators “…just ask that they (legislators) make their decisions based on accurate information, with the future of our students in mind. “We completely agree, and just ask that educators do the same. Unfortunately, some have been making their case for tax increases and lawsuits with a healthy dose of inaccurate and/or misleading information.

For example, Mr. Dennis said another Board member “…alleges…” that schools started the current year with $700 million in carryover cash reserves (in addition to money for capital projects and bond payments). This is no allegation, it is a fact that we obtained from the Department of Education. Here are some other facts we discovered that have been confirmed by the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE):

  • Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis says schools can legally use those reserves for current expenses, freeing General Fund receipts for other purposes.

  • That $700 million total has grown 53% over the last four years, which means that schools haven’t spent all of the money they received.
  • No independent audit of the necessary ending balances in each fund has been performed.

Certainly some carryover is necessary but the minimum required balances have not been determined, so combined with the fact that these balances have grown 53%, it’s quite likely that a good portion of it could be used to avoid budget cuts.

Here’s another fact confirmed by KSDE that has been conveniently ignored or distorted:

  • Schools are getting a lot more than $4,012 in Base State Aid Per Pupil (BSAPP). Total aid to schools from state, federal and property tax sources this year is $12,225, or just 3.43% less than last year.

There is also ample evidence that schools are spending more money than necessary. A July 2009 study by the Legislative Division of Post Audit (LPA) found many districts are much less efficient than others and offered 80 recommendations to save money. The 2010 Commission ordered the study, Phase 2 of which would have sent auditors into schools to help find ways to save money. But districts objected, so the 2010 Commission canceled Phase 2 and now is calling for more state aid to schools, knowing that other options exist.

Our own study of K-12 expenditures found per-pupil spending in 2007-08 ranged from $9,017 to $25,240. If high-spending districts had been just been at the median cost-per-pupil of similar-sized districts, it would have saved $636 million. The complete analysis is available at www.KansasPolicy.org.

Mr. Dennis referenced another LPA report that found a correlation between increases in education spending and achievement scores, which he and others have used to justify their demands. They neglect to mention, however, that LPA did not say that higher spending caused test scores to increase. (It’s a well-known research principle that correlation does not imply causation). That same LPA report also said the educational research “…offers mixed opinions about whether increased spending for educational inputs is related to improved student performance.”

The truth is that these facts and others refute schools’ case for higher spending.

What’s missing from the Dennis editorial on Kansas school funds

Today’s Wichita Eagle carries an editorial by Kansas School Board member David Dennis taking issue with claims that Kansas schools have money that can be spent.

At issue is the claim made by the Kansas Policy Institute and Kansas School Board member Walt Chappell that Kansas schools have hundreds of millions in funds that could be put to use to meet the current shortfall. See Districts Have Funds To Meet Projected $100 Million Shortfall for an explanation.

The editorial by Dennis explains some of the major funds and their purpose, and gives their balances on July 1.

But that’s not sufficient. To simply state that a fund has a balance of $x that is used for a certain purpose tells us nothing about whether that amount is the right amount.

The evidence we do have tells us that the balances in these funds are more than needed. That’s because they’ve been growing rapidly, by 53 percent over the last four years. The only way the fund balances can grow is if schools aren’t spending the money as fast as it’s going in the funds. Dennis didn’t mention this in his editorial.

So what Kansas schools could do, in many cases, is to spend down these funds. Kansas Policy Institute President Dave Trabert gave an example where a food service fund might have a balance of $10 million. Then suppose the district believes it will need to spend $15 million on food service. Instead of stocking the fund with $15 million of new funding, add just $5 million (plus a little more). This gives the food service fund the ability to do its job, but it frees up perhaps $10 million to be used for other purposes.

It’s not only theses two — KPI and Chappell — that say spending down these funds is possible. Kansas Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis agrees.

An effect of doing this will be that fund balances will be smaller, requiring schools to be careful. That’s not as comfortable as operating with the cushion of large balances. But these are difficult times, and people across the state are taking extraordinary measures.

The existence of these funds raises a question: Is it necessary to have so many funds? Do they restrict schools from allocating resources efficiently, to where they are most needed?

Dennis’ editorial also contains a gross mischaracterization that I’m surprised the Eagle let slip by. It’s in this passage: “The base state aid per pupil for the 2009-10 school year, by statute, should be $4,492. This is the primary source of funding for the regular classroom. Due to state aid reductions, we are down to $4,012, an 11 percent reduction.”

As I wrote in my recent post Wichita schools on the funding decrease, base state aid per pupil is just a portion of total school spending: “It’s base state aid per pupil that was cut by 9.5%, or $421. But base state aid per pupil is only a portion of total school spending. In the case of the Wichita school district, it’s less than one-third of total funding and spending. To put a cut of $421 in context, consider the total spending by USD 259. It’s somewhere around $13,000 per pupil. $421 is 3.2% of that.”

(The numbers in my illustration were taken from a document supplied by the Wichita public school system, and are slightly different from the numbers Dennis uses. But they’re in the same neighborhood.)

So while the numbers Dennis uses are correct — as far as they go — it’s misleading to claim that a reduction in base state aid per pupil results in the same percentage decrease in total school spending. It’s dishonest for someone equipped with the knowledge and experience that Dennis has to make such a claim.

It’s also further evidence of just how difficult it is to get accurate information. Schools have so much money — even in this tough economic climate — that they go out of the way to hide just how much they have. Sometimes school spending advocates are simply uninformed, as was Rep. Melody McCray-Miller last year when she disputed the per-pupil spending of the Wichita public schools.

Kansas school spending advocates: no alternative views welcome

On Monday and Tuesday, the Kansas House Appropriations Committee held hearings, and big topics were Kansas school funding and the Kansas budget. The reaction by school spending advocates to two speakers is illustrative of the highly divisive nature of public school operation and funding in Kansas.

We need to label them school spending advocates — and government schools at that — because it is increasingly apparent that increasing school spending (or avoiding necessary reductions in spending) at the expense of all reason is their goal. Suggestions that schools should operate more efficiently or learn to live with a little less — as many Kansas families and businesses are doing — will result in attacks on the messenger, sometimes unnecessarily personal in nature.

Monday’s education-related testimony started with Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell, followed by former Kansas Education Commissioner Bob Corkins. My reporting of their testimony is at At House Appropriations, Chappell presents Kansas school funding ideas and Corkins testifies on school finance history, recommendations.

An example of the criticism made by government school spending advocates is that of Kathy Cook of Kansas Families for Education. In her newsletter she spoke of “Black Monday in Topeka,” writing “From House Appropriations to the Governor’s press briefing, it was nothing but bad news for our schools and our students. It was the longest drive home, and not without tears for all that is about to be lost for our kids.”

She made personal attacks on both Chappell and Corkins without making substantive criticism about their testimony.

At the Kansas National Education Association (or KNEA, the teachers union), the “Under the Dome Today” newsletter carried a heading reading “Walt Chappell, Bob Corkins attack public education.” I heard no such attack from either speaker. They suggested ways that schools could operate differently to save money (Chappell) and to organize their reporting and accounting to better track spending and results (Corkins).

To the Kansas education establishment, evidently, these suggestions represent unwanted meddling in school affairs.

Reacting to the testimony of Chappell and Corkins, one leftist Kansas blog took the committee and its chairman to task for holding “a hearing that was lopsided even by Adolf Eichmann’s standards.” I was there for the entire afternoon, and after these two spoke, I heard three school district superintendents plea for more funds. Then, topping off the day was chief school spending and taxing advocate Mark Tallman, the lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB). There was, believe me, much pleading for more school funding.

Some of the testimony was difficult to listen to. Fred Kaufman, superintendent of the Hays school system, said twice that there is no advocacy group for school administrators. I wonder if he has heard of United School Administrators of Kansas. This organization’s website describes itself as “a statewide ‘umbrella’ organization comprised of members of ten school administrator associations. We represent more than 2,000 individual administrators statewide.”

The backdrop of all this is that the actual decrease in Kansas school funding, when considering all sources of funding, is quite small. As of August — before the governor’s cuts on Monday — estimated Kansas school spending per pupil for the 2009 to 2010 school year, when considering all sources of school revenue, fell by only 0.64%. That’s quite a bit less than one percent. It’s a rounding error, a fluctuation that could also have been caused by events such as, say, a cold winter causing higher utility bills. It’s an event that should have no affect on the ability of the schools to educate children.

The reductions the governor made on Monday will increase the cut that schools will have to absorb. When considering this, it’s important to remember that schools fared much better than many state agencies this year. Schools still have a tremendous amount of money to work with, a fact that schools work hard to hide.

Strong evidence that schools have plenty of money is that fund balances have been increasing. The way that these funds — and we’re talking about nearly $700 million in operating funds, not capital funds — increase their balances is by more money going in than is spent.

The uncovering of the existence of these balances is strongly attacked by school spending advocates. Despite many school administrator’s claims, sunlight and transparency is not their goal.

Extra money in Kansas school funds could help with budget

Continuing a debate on Kansas school funding on the KPTS television public affairs program Kansas Week, Kansas Policy Institute (formerly the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy) President Dave Trabert appeared tonight to present KPI’s findings about school funding. While school spending advocates have criticized these findings, there’s really good news for Kansas in the numbers.

Trabert said that despite the large amount of discussion about school funding in recent years, there is still much misunderstanding about the topic.

He said that KPI put out a report that showed that Kansas schools finished the last fiscal year with $1.5 billion in unencumbered cash. A portion of it is not available for general use, he said, but $699.2 million is. This is not only according to KPI’s analysis, Trabert said. Dale Dennis, Kansas Deputy Commissioner of Education, last week told Kansas State Education board members how schools could access these funds. Money flows in to the general or supplemental general fund, and is then disbursed to other special funds. Money in the special funds can be used only for the fund’s stated purpose, but by reducing contributions to these funds, schools can effectively access the money in these funds.

An an example, Trabert used a food service fund with a balance of $10 million. Then suppose a district believes it will need to spend $15 million on food service. Instead of stocking the fund with $15 million of new funding, add just $5 million (plus a little more). This gives the food service fund the ability to do its job, but it frees up perhaps $10 million to be used for other purposes.

Trabert said that Dennis agrees that this action is possible.

The $699.2 million balance in the operating category is a 53% increase over the past four years. “The only way that those balances grow is when more money goes in to them than is taken out,” Trabert said. This means that schools didn’t need all the revenue they received.

Host Tim Brown noted that there is a fierce debate over this, with schools saying this money isn’t available for spending in this way. Specifically, ending balances in funds are needed for expenses during a “carry over” period from July 1 to October 25. Trabert said yes, schools need something for this period, but no one knows how much. The fact that the balances are growing rapidly is strong evidence that the balances are higher than needed.

A second area of misunderstanding concerns how much the state is spending on schools. Using Kansas State Department of Education figures, Trabert showed that spending has been growing rapidly over the past years. Further, state spending is just part of local school districts’ total spending. For example, for the 2008-2009 school year, spending by the state of Kansas was $3,287.2 million, while Kansas school districts spent $5,666.7 million.

Often only the Kansas base state aid per pupil is focused on, but that number is just the starting point for school spending. While this number has been cut, total spending by schools fell by only 0.64% last year, Trabert said.

Brown said that these numbers are different from numbers seen in some other sources. Trabert replied that the numbers he is using are from the Kansas State Department of Education. Often school spending advocates use numbers that represent just a portion of the total school spending picture.

In conclusion, Trabert said that there is really some good news in these figures: “We don’t have to have higher taxes or cut services. We can have both if we figure out how to make better use of all the money we already have.”

Kansas open records examined

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

The spirit is willing but the law is weak

Paul Soutar, Flint Hills Center for Public Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxpayer Frustrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of data, oversight raises questions on Kansas school spending

In the following report, investigative reporter Paul Soutar of the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy takes a look at school spending in Kansas. Particularly troubling is the decision to abandon an audit already in progress.

A recent decision by the 2010 Commission to not complete an efficiency audit of K-12 schools in Kansas may undercut the case for increased spending on schools.

In its 2005 session the Kansas Legislature increased state funding for school districts by more than $145 million for the following school year. The same bill also created the 2010 Commission and charged it to, in part, “conduct ongoing monitoring of the school district finance act” and directed it to “ensure that the Kansas system is efficient and effective.”

Three years into its existence, the 2010 Commission asked Legislative Post Audit (LPA) to conduct the first efficiency audit of K-12 school districts. But in its June 29 meeting, Commission members voted to cancel the second half of the audit. Commission chair Rochelle Chronister told members that district administrators are too busy dealing with budget cuts to complete the audit.

2010 Commission member Dennis Jones supports the decision not to complete the audit as originally requested. “We’re in a time of severe economic stress for everyone and school districts are also feeling the pinch. It seems to me that it’s not the best or most efficient use of the districts’ time to be inundated with a bunch of housekeeping questions about efficiency. I think it’s better use of manpower to get budgets prepared and to prepare for next school year.

Districts can voluntarily complete the audit but so far only two of the state’s 294 districts, Derby and Ellinwood, have chosen to do so.

The Legislative Division of Post Audit (LPA) was originally asked to analyze district staffing and expenditure data to identify areas where spending appeared to be out of line with their peers. The intent was to answer two questions:

  • Do the districts manage their personnel, facilities, and other resources in an efficient and economical manner?

  • Do the districts follow best practices for financial management to ensure that their financial resources are protected?

In the first phase LPA collected data from districts for analysis. According to the report released July 25, “The second phase called for following up on a sample of districts to evaluate their processes in the areas that appeared to be out-of-line to determine if there were ways they could reduce costs.”

The 2010 Commission suspended the second phase of the audit at its April 2009 meeting, and asked LPA to review the available data looking for trends or patterns that shed light on districts’ efficiency. At the May meeting, the commission asked LPA to contact districts and offer help in finding ways to operate more efficiently. The second phase of the audit was effectively canceled and the new scope of the audit was: How do school districts compare on various measures of efficiency?

The utility of that evaluation is limited, according to the LPA report, because districts do not uniformly report statistics to the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE). Reporting errors could be evaluated and corrected by completing the original audit plan.

School districts don’t report certain types of data consistently, making meaningful comparisons difficult. According to LPA, some district employees don’t know the accounting standards or ignore training. For example, the LPA report says the Goessel district reported spending an average of $4 per student on student support services for 2006-07 and 2007-08 when, on average, the 121 districts examined in the report spent $242 per student in that category Goessel officials told LPA they reported certain contracted student support services as instruction expenses.

Previous LPA reports, a Standard & Poor’s audit and even administrators at KSDE have stressed the need to follow standardized accounting practices.

Stephen Iliff is a CPA and is the only member of the 2010 Commission not connected to or retired from government or public schools. He wrote dissenting minority reports for several of the commission’s annual reports to the legislature and says district accounting staff must be trained and held accountable so comparable information can be obtained. “Public school accounting practices would not be tolerated in the private sector.”

In his dissent from the commission’s 2006 report Iliff wrote, “Legislators are continually being asked to provide more funds for education and do not understand where the money is going or how it is being used. This is like writing a blank check to the school system by the taxpayers.”

The report goes on to say, “At least 6 out of 12 duties given to the 2010 Commission include words like determine, evaluate, monitor, review and ensure the Kansas system is efficient and effective. All of these words and duties are meaningless without a system that will capture information in a comprehensive, methodical, orderly and consistent fashion.”

A March 2002 LPA audit found that laws, policies, and practices related to school district budgets are flawed in some areas including inconsistent reporting that makes it difficult to know how much money a district is taking in or how money is being spent. Iliff says those problems still exist.

Dissent Discouraged

State Board of Education member Walt Chappell, the lone dissenter in the state school board’s July 15 decision to ask the Legislature for $282 million in additional funding, says the vote was rushed and lacked serious discussion. “What I was concerned about is that we were just going through the motions. We didn’t discuss whether schools needed the money or had other priorities or whether some should go to vocational programs.”

According to Iliff dissenting opinions are not sought in school oversight. “Not only do they not ask for it but Rochelle Chronister tried to cut out three pages of one minority report and I had to go above her to a lawyer to keep it in.”

“The people Chronister asks to to speak to the Commission appear to create a stacked deck,” Iliff said in a recent phone interview.

Nine district superintendents appeared before the commission June 29 and each asked for more money, either through additional state revenue (more or higher taxes), funding to levels previously budgeted by the Legislature or adjustments in the formula. Their testimony was punctuated with stories of dramatic increases in the number of poor and special needs students and English language learners. Most had data purporting to show significant increases in student performance as measured against State assessment tests, but no comparisons were made to national achievement tests, which show much lower proficiency levels.

Mark Tallman, Assistant Executive Director/Advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards was the concluding witness before the 2010 Commission on June 29 and presented data in support of the superintendents’ pleas for more money.

Data used use to show increases in student performance are connected to increased funding is deceptive according to Iliff. “Before the increases in cash because of the Supreme Court decision the graphs were already heading upward.” Iliff says he believes the trend is more the result of the standards and sanctions put in place by No Child Left Behind.

A 2008 LPA report on district’s use of increased funding says, “student outcomes had been improving for several years before the changes to the funding formula, and have continued to improve.” The report goes on to say, “because student performance is the result of years of accumulated instruction, it’s too early to tell how the new funding has affected performance.”

School superintendents also made their case for increased funding.

Brenda Dietrich, superintendent of USD 437, Auburn-Washburn schools in Topeka, asked the commission to urge the legislature to provide the funding that was initially budgeted in conjunction with court-mandated spending increases. Proponents of increased funding say the legislature is in violation of the Kansas Supreme Court’s order if they don’t provide the funding.

Dietrich noted, “There was plenty of money in our state treasury to fund education and all other agencies a mere three years ago.” She also put the onus squarely on state legislators, “Through the state’s budget process they single-handedly control the conditions under which the children of Kansas can access a quality education.”

Dennis Stones, superintendent of USD 441, Sabetha, asked that the legislature seek additional revenue streams and enact a moratorium on tax breaks and tax cuts. His district is cutting activities including some athletic games and freshman football.

Chronister told Stones he should do more than cut a few coaches and games. “If you cut football programs suddenly a tax increase might not look so bad.”

When asked in a later phone interview to clarify her comment, Chronister said, “I’m going to ask what have you done to really wake your patrons up. I know some people the only thing they care about is who’s coaching the football team and who’s wining games. I also know we seldom have people come and yell and scream about the math teacher but it’s not uncommon to have people yelling about the football coach.”

Beth Reust, superintendent of USD 270, Plainville, said her district tried to eliminate driver’s education to help balance their budget. After strong reaction from the community it was reinstated along with a $350 tuition charge. The district planned for 28 students but only 15 signed up because some parents found a better deal; a neighboring district offers the class for $150.

Reust also asked that the legislature ramp spending down rather than cutting it all at once. “If you have $60,000 then get $90,000 and start living on $90,000 you get accustomed to it.”

Jill Shackelford, superintendent of USD 500, Kansas City, Kan., also mentioned getting accustomed to budget increases. “I started as superintendent the first year of the Montoy increase. I thought that honeymoon was going to last forever.”

Iliff says, “Some people in education spend like there’s no tomorrow.”

Legislature responsibility

“The legislature either needs to belly up to the bar, so to speak, or change the law,” Chronister said during the phone interview. “If they change the law they are going to be in a position that the courts are going to be right back at them for not providing the money for a public education for every child as the state constitution charges them.”

According to Chronister the current focus of the commission is urging the legislature to find additional money for schools.

Jones thinks that’s a mistake. “If we wanted to be California that might be a position to take. The legislature still has the constitutional authority to determine a suitable provision for finance. In these times of dire economic stress the legislature has to have flexibility to meet the needs of all of Kansans.”

Jones sees flaws in the formula. “We were far better off when local districts had some autonomy over how much to spend and how to spend it. We’ve taken that away from local districts and said every student in Kansas is lumped in category A and then some other sub-categories. That hamstrings the local school board.”

Jones also believes the legislature is unduly bound. “The Supreme Court has determined that an opportunity for a quality education is a basic right of every student in Kansas and we’re going to measure that with outputs and with an arbitrary funding formula. I think to some extent that hamstrings the legislature.”

“The most important single function the state of Kansas provides is the education of its students,” Jones said. “We must give our young people an opportunity to prepare for the challenges of tomorrow. And in an ideal world the funding would be whatever it takes. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world. Schools are going to have to share in the sacrifice asked of everyone.”

Donald Adkisson, Director of Finance for USD 260, Derby, says Derby’s decision to voluntarily proceed with the LPA audit is an opportunity to get some more information. “We’ve made so many cuts in the last 10 years, we’re at the point we’re willing to hear ideas from anyone.” Transparency and efficiency are important in Derby according to Adkisson, “We don’t hide anything. Come in and look at us. We’re going to do as much as we can to keep the costs low for the taxpayers.”

Iliff says asking for increased funding in the current economy is arrogant. “It’s insensitive to the struggles of the common person who has lost his job. A lot of people are foregoing a lot of benefits just to make ends meet. The people asking for increases seem like they’re impervious, a new dynasty or political class.”