Tag Archives: School choice

Block grants a chance for more school choice in Kansas

The block grant school funding bill under consideration in the Kansas Legislature would hold districts harmless for enrollment declines due to school choice.

Critics of school choice programs allege that as public school districts lost students to other schools, and the students’ funding follows the students to the new schools, school districts are worse off, financially speaking. That’s because school districts say that their costs do not fall as rapidly as does enrollment, although this has been found to be untrue.

But under the block grant bill in Kansas, school funding is no longer tied to enrollment, at least for the next two years. This means that when school districts lose students for any reason, including due to school choice programs, their revenue stays the same. Funding rises, when measured on a per-pupil basis.

This should be an opening for increased school choice programs in Kansas. Presently Kansas has a law that allows charter schools, but there are few such schools. That’s because local school districts have to approve a charter school, and few districts will do that. We have a tax credit scholarship program in Kansas this year, but it is capped at a small amount of money, and student eligibility requirements mean that not everyone can participate. An “eligible student” is a child who qualifies as an at-risk pupil (eligible for free lunch under the National School Lunch Act) and either attends a school that would qualify as either a Title I Focus School or a Title I Priority School; or has received an educational scholarship under this program and has not graduated from high school or reached 21 years of age. Also, eligible students must have been enrolled in a public school in the year prior to receiving the scholarship or be eligible to be enrolled in a public school, if under the age of six. These are significant restrictions that focus the scholarship program on students who need it most, and who are least likely to be able to afford private schools on their own. But many other Kansas schoolchildren would also benefit from school choice, as they do in other states.

With the primary criticism of school choice out of the picture (the alleged “drain” on public school funding) supporters of choice have an opportunity to advance their cause. So far, no one has publically advanced any proposals or legislation for expansion of school choice in Kansas.

School choice and state spending on schools

States like Kansas that are struggling to balance budgets could use school choice programs as a way to save money.

When states consider implementing school choice programs, a common objection is that the state can’t afford school choice. Public school spending interest groups will tell legislators that school choice programs drain money from already under-funded public schools. School choice, they will say, is a luxury the state can’t afford, much less local school districts.

Research shows, however, that school choice programs can be constructed in a way that does not harm local school districts. Simply: A typical Kansas school district has variable costs of $8,709 per student. If such a district loses a student and associated funding, as long as that funding is less than $8,709, the district’s fiscal situation is improved. Base state aid in Kansas is $3,852, although state spending per student is $7,088 (2013 to 2014 school year). So it’s quite likely that any student who leaves a public school for any reason, including attending a private school or home school, improves the fiscal standing of the district, on a per student basis.

At the state level, a similar dynamic applies, although the reasoning is easier to follow: If the state funds that follow the child are less than average state spending per student, the state has the opportunity to save. The savings can be large, if states are willing to embrace choice programs.

Savings from school voucher programs, from Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Click for larger version.
Savings from school voucher programs, from Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Click for larger version.
In the report The School Voucher Audit: Do Publicly Funded Private School Choice Programs Save Money?, prepared for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the author finds that from 1991 to 2011, voucher programs alone have saved state governments a cumulative $1.7 billion. While representing just a small portion of total state spending, this total is from the ten states that had voucher programs in effect at the time of the study. In 2011 about 70,000 students were in these voucher programs.

The key understanding is that when student enrollment declines — for whatever reason — schools see reduced costs. For those who deny that, there is a corollary:

Opponents claim, simplistically, that school choice drains money from the public school system. That rhetoric obscures an important fact: A public school is also relieved of a cost burden for any student switching to private school. By not acknowledging such variable cost savings, opponents implicitly argue that all public school costs are “fixed.” By extension, they then conclude that the loss of funding for a student using a voucher to transfer to a private school harms all the remaining students at the affected public school. But that argument strains credulity: If there were no savings when a public school’s enrollment declines, logic dictates there would be no additional costs for schools when their enrollment grows.

It may be that costs do not decrease (or rise) smoothly as enrollment declines: “That phenomenon reflects the reality that schools must fund classrooms, not students.” Many businesses face this cost structure and are able to adapt, and it should be no different for schools.

An important note is that as students leave a school and its cost burden falls, the school must actually take steps to reduce spending in response to the reduced cost burden it experiences.

A problem is that critics of school choice may notice that no money has been saved after school choice programs are implemented. This is because “savings are typically reallocated to other spending, either directly or indirectly.” It is not uncommon for public schools to be held fiscally harmless for declining enrollments. The net effect is that public schools are paid for students that are no longer enrolled, and that absorbs the savings due to school choice. The cost savings are there; but are still spent on schools rather than spent elsewhere, saved, or returned to taxpayers.

Rally for school choice in Kansas

This month, parents and children from around Kansas rallied in the Kansas Capitol for school choice.

Speakers included James Franko of Kansas Policy Institute. He told the audience that children deserve better than what they are getting today. For many, he said that might be in a public school, but for many others it may be in a private school. Parents and their children should make that decision. It shouldn’t be based on their zip code. Individuals, not institutions, should be the focus.

Kansas now has a private school choice program. Franko told the audience that newspaper coverage of this program emphasizes how it helps private schools and hurts public schools. But we should be reading stories about how school choice helps kids, giving each child the freedom and opportunity to find the best educational fit. He explained that school choice also helps the students who remain in public schools, referring to a Friedman Foundation for Education Choice study. “It’s about helping every single child,” he said.

The study Franko mentioned is A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice. In its executive summary, author Greg Forster, Ph.D. writes “Opponents frequently claim school choice does not benefit participants, hurts public schools, costs taxpayers, facilitates segregation, and even undermines democracy. However, the empirical evidence consistently shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.”

Later, the specific finding that Franko used in his talk: “Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.

Michael Chartier of the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice said that there are now 51 school choice programs in 24 states plus the District of Columbia.

School Choice Rally, Kansas Capitol 2015-02-02 15.07.38 HDRAndrea Hillebert, principal of Mater Dei Catholic School in Topeka told the audience that school choice benefits families, schools, and the state. Families can choose the learning environment that is best for their children, and are not penalized if they choose a school that is not run by the government. She told the audience that “school choice encourages — requires — families to take an active role in shaping their students’ future.” Schools benefit because consumer choice is a catalyst for innovating programming and continuous improvement. The state benefits from the increased achievement of students in non-public schools.

Susan Estes of Americans for Prosperity – Kansas explained that even as a former public schoolteacher, it has been a challenge for her to navigate the school system so that the needs of her three children were met. She said that parents not only deserve, but have the right to be the primary decision maker for their children.

Bishop Wade Moore, founder and principal of Urban Preparatory Academy in Wichita, completed the program. Urban Prep is a new private school in northeast Wichita, and students from that school attended the rally. He said that our legislators have “a moral responsibility to do what is right for each Kansas kid.” He mentioned the students that are pushed through the system until they graduate, but are unprepared for college, trade school, or employment. “A lot of those children have no chance at life. So we say that we have a crisis in this nation,” he said.

Alluding to how Kansas has few school choice programs, Moore said “It’s time for us to wake up and move ahead, like the rest of the nation, in education reform.” He said that he heard a school superintendent make the statement that our children and parents have a choice in education. He said “They can choose one of our schools to attend.” That is not choice, Moore said. Real choice is when parents have the opportunity to go outside the public school system.

The reason for the poor academic performance of many children is that their parents have not had choice and control over the children’s education. “It is imperative that all children, regardless of their race, gender, place of residence, and socio-economic status, learn the concepts and strategies necessary for them to develop and succeed,” he told the audience.

WichitaLiberty.TV: That piano, the effect of school choice on school districts, and making Wichita inviting.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The purchase of a piano by a Kansas school district is a teachable moment. Then, how do school choice programs affect budgets and performance of school districts? Finally, making Wichita an inclusive and attractive community. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 75, broadcast February 15, 2015.

How do school choice programs affect budgets and performance of school districts?

Opponents of school choice programs argue the programs harm school districts, both financially and in their ability to serve their remaining students. Evidence does not support this position.

If school choice programs — charter schools, vouchers, or tax credit scholarships — harmed the existing public schools, it would be a reasonable argument against school choice. Especially if the students who remain in public schools had less of an opportunity to learn.

The prevalent argument is that charter schools and other public school alternatives drain funds from public schools. That is, if a public school student chooses a charter or private school, and if the money follows the student to the other school, the public school district loses money that it otherwise would have received. Therefore, the public school district is worse off, and so too are its students.

A rebuttal is that since a public school has shed the responsibility for schooling the student, its costs should fall correspondingly. This would be true if all the costs of a public school are variable. Some costs are fixed, however, meaning they can’t be adjusted quickly — in the short run, that is. An example is the cost to maintain a classroom. If a school has one less student than the year before, it still requires the same support for utilities. One or several fewer students doesn’t mean that fewer teachers are needed.

Public schools and their lobbyists, therefore, argue that school choice programs are a financial burden to public schools. Under school choice programs, they say, public schools lose students and their accompanying funding, but the public schools retain their fixed costs.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts (cover)The question, then, is what portion of a school’s costs are variable, meaning costs that schools can adjust quickly, and what portion are fixed, meaning they can’t be adjusted quickly? Benjamin Scafidi, professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, has examined schools looking for the answer to this question. His paper The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts, published by The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, holds answers to these questions.

The first question is this: What is the relation of school choice programs to school districts’ variable costs? Scafidi has endeavored to determine the breakdown between variable and fixed costs in each state. In Kansas, for the 2008 – 2009 school year, total spending per student was $11,441. Of that, Scafidi estimates $3,749, or 32.8 percent, were fixed costs. Variable costs were $7,692, or 67.2 percent. Since then spending has risen, but there’s no reason to think the allocation of costs between fixed and variable has changed materially. For the school year ending in 2014 total spending per student was $12,960. That implies fixed costs per student of $4,251 and variable costs per student of $8,709.

Now, how much money would a public school lose if a student chose, say, a private voucher school under a voucher program? In Kansas we don’t have vouchers for school choice, so we can’t answer the question directly. We do know that base state aid per pupil in Kansas is $3,852. That is the starting point for state spending per student.

In a recent presentation on this topic, Scafidi said: “Any school choice program where about $8,000 per student or less, on average, follows the child to the school of his or her choice, improves the fiscal situation of the public school district, on average, and students who remain in public schools have more resources available for their education.”

A typical Kansas school district, therefore, with variable costs of $8,709 per student, has its fiscal situation improved when it loses a student and its $3,852 in state funding.

Kansas School Finance Formula, from Kansas Policy Institute, August 2014
Kansas School Finance Formula, from Kansas Policy Institute, August 2014
Many Kansas students, however, trigger much more funding due to weightings that compensate for the purported higher costs of some situations. The largest weighting in Kansas, based on numeric magnitude, is the at-risk weighting. It adds 45.6 percent to base state aid. So if a Kansas public school loses such a student and weighting, it loses $5,608 in funding. That is far less than its variable costs of $8,709. State funding for Kansas schools in the 2013 to 2014 school year was $7,088 per student, still less than school districts’ variable costs.

I asked Scafidi what is the dividing line between variable and fixed costs? The answer is that within two or three years, schools should be able to adjust their fixed costs to be in line with their needs. This is in line with the economic and accounting reality that says in the long run, all costs are variable.

Can school districts adjust their costs quickly in response to changing enrollments? This may be a problem for the very smallest districts, those with just one or two teachers per grade, Scadifi concedes. In his paper, Scafidi illustrates two examples of districts in Georgia with just over 1,000 students making adjustments. In Kansas, there are 286 school districts. Of these, 207 have enrollment of less than 1,000 students, but only 20 percent if the state’s students are in these small districts.

School districts often dispute the contention that they are able to reduce their variable costs rapidly in response to enrollment changes. Scafidi notes that if school districts say they cannot reduce costs when they lose students, the implication is that all of their costs are fixed. If true, then schools should not receive additional funding when enrollment rises. After all, if all their costs are fixed, costs do not change with enrollment — either up or down.

We have seen that school choice programs do not harm the finances of local school districts. The second question concerns the quality of education for the students who remain in public schools.

To answer this question, we must recognize the wide variation of teacher efficacy. Some are very good, and some very poor. Further, the difference between good and bad is large. Eric A. Hanushek and others have found that very good teachers routinely produce 1.5 years of gain in achievement during an academic year. Bad teachers produce 0.5 years of gain. If a student is unfortunate enough to experience ineffective teachers two or three years in a row, the student may be so far behind as to never catch up.

What does this have to do with school choice programs? If public schools have to downsize due to students lost for any reason — including school choice programs — this gives public schools an opportunity to shed their least effective teachers. This means that students who remain in public schools have a higher likelihood of experiencing the most effective teachers.

Wichita schools seek to rebrand

While poormouthing and suing taxpayers for more money, the Wichita school district wants to spend on a rebranding and marketing campaign.

The idea that a government agency needs to market itself illustrates a few inconsistencies, as shown below. But spending any money on this effort shows that the district leadership is a little out of touch with the taxpayers.

First, taxpayers are being sued for more money by a collection of Kansas school districts, including the Wichita district. So the district is using taxpayer money to extract more taxpayer money, and now it wants to spend more taxpayer money to tell taxpayers how wonderful it is.

Second, school districts continually say how spending has been “cut to the bone,” and that there is nowhere else to cut. But, there is money to spend for marketing.

The article quoted Wendy Johnson, director of marketing and communications for the Wichita district: “For people who suggest that we need to operate like a business and employ business strategies: Businesses tune into their customers, do market research, are active listeners all the time.” (Wichita school board to consider hiring marketing firm, rebranding district; Wichita Eagle, January 11, 2015)

First of all, the Wichita school district is not an “active listener.” If you say what the district wants to hear, yes. But the district is not welcoming to those with a different opinion. A notable example comes from 2012 when Betty Arnold was board president. At a meeting, citizens had criticized the board for large and important issues, but also for such mundane things as the amount of the superintendent’s monthly car allowance. Arnold admonished citizens for speaking about things like this in public. It’s not respectful, she said. Finally, after directing a uniformed security guard to station himself near a citizen speaker, Arnold told the audience: “If we need to clear the room, we will clear the room. This board meeting is being held in public, but it is not for the public, or of the public. And I hope you understand that.”

The idea that the Wichita school district is in any way like a business is laughable.

Most businesses do not have laws that force customers to use their products and services. (Mandatory attendance laws.)

Most businesses are not able to force people to pay them even if people do not use their service. Even people who pay to send their children to private schools must still pay the public schools. (Schools are funded by taxes.)

Businesses are not able to decide whether to allow new competitors. (Usually this is the case. Some states have laws that allow existing companies like movers decide whether new moving companies should be allowed to form.)

The article mentioned charter schools as a source of competition for the Wichita school district. But the district must approve the formation of any charter schools within its boundaries. Anyone who investigates would soon realize that the Wichita school district has no intent of allowing charter schools.

If the Wichita school district wanted to experience a little bit of the competition for customers that business face — competition which would improve the district — it could signal its awareness to approve charter school applications. That would do more to improve the experience for Wichita schoolchildren than any marketing message.

Ratios of teachers and employees to students have fallen in the Wichita school district.
Ratios of teachers and employees to students have fallen in the Wichita school district.

Kansas minimum wage hike would harm the most vulnerable workers

A bill to raise the minimum wage in Kansas will harm the most vulnerable workers, and make it more difficult for low-skill workers to get started in the labor market.

Legislation introduced by Representative Jim Ward of Wichita would raise the minimum wage in Kansas by one dollar per hour each year until it reaches $10.25 per hour in 2018. The bill is HB 2012, captioned “enacting the Kansas working families pay raise act.”

The caption of the bill, referencing “working families,” hints at the problem, as seen by progressives. The minimum wage does not generate enough income to raise a family. While the bill calls for raising the minimum wage, it makes no reference of whether workers are raising a family, or working part-time for pin money while in high school.

But aside from that, there is the important question to consider: Will raising the minimum wage help or harm low-wage earners? And are the policy goals — taken in their entirety — of the groups pressing for a higher minimum wage in the best interest of workers? The answer to these questions is that higher minimum wages harm low-wage workers and low-skilled people who would like to work.

The great appeal of a higher minimum wage mandated by an act of the legislature is that it seems like a wonderfully magical way to increase the wellbeing of low-wage workers. Those who were earning less than the new lawful wage and who keep their jobs after the increase are happy. They are grateful to the lawmakers, labor leaders, newspaper editorialists, and others who pleaded for the higher minimum wage. News stories will report their good fortune.

That’s the visible effect of raising the minimum wage. But to understand the entire issue, we must look for the unseen effects.

The not-so-visible effect of the higher wage law is that demand for labor will be reduced. Those workers whose productivity, as measured by the give and take of supply and demand, lies below the new lawful wage rate are in danger of losing their jobs. The minimum wage law says if you hire someone you must pay them a certain amount. The law can’t compel you to hire someone, nor can it compel employers to keep workers on the payroll.

The difficulty is that people with lose their jobs in dribs and drabs. A few workers here; a few there. They may not know who is to blame. Newspaper and television reporters will not seek these people, as they are largely invisible, especially so in the case of the people who are not hired because of the higher wage law.

In the real world, business owners have many things they can do when labor becomes more expensive. Some things employers do to compensate for higher labor costs include these:

  • Reduce non-wage benefits such as health insurance.
  • Eliminate overtime hours that many employees rely on.
  • Substitute machines for labor. We might see more self-service checkout lanes at supermarkets, more automated ordering systems at fast food restaurants, and more use of automated telephone response systems, for example.
  • Use illegal labor. Examples include paying employees under the table, or requiring work off-the-clock.
  • Some employers may be more willing to bear the risks of using undocumented workers who can’t complain that they aren’t being paid the minimum wage.
  • Some employers may decide that the risks and hassles of being in business aren’t worth it anymore, and will close shop. Others simply can’t afford the higher wages and close. The Wall Street Journal reported on a nonprofit restaurant that couldn’t survive under Michigan’s higher minimum wage, reporting “These unintended consequences of a minimum wage hike aren’t unique to small towns in south-central Michigan. Tragically, they repeat themselves in locales small and large each time legislators heed the populist call to ‘raise the wage.'”

If we are truly concerned about the plight of low-wage workers we can face some harsh realities and deal with them openly. The simple fact is that some people are not able to produce output that our economy values very much. They are not very productive. Passing a law that requires employers to pay them more doesn’t change the fact that their productivity is low. But there are ways to increase productivity.

One way to increase workers’ productivity is through education. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that our public education system is failing badly.

Capital — another way to increase wages — may be a dirty word to some. But as the economist Walter E. Williams says, ask yourself this question: who earns the higher wage: a man digging a ditch with a shovel, or a man digging a ditch using a power backhoe? The difference between the two is that the man with the backhoe is more productive. That productivity is provided by capital — the savings that someone accumulated (instead of spending on immediate consumption or taxes) and invested in a piece of equipment that increased the output of workers and our economy.

Education and capital accumulation are the two best ways to increase the productivity and the wages of workers. Ironically, the people who are most vocal about raising wages through legislative fiat are also usually opposed to meaningful education reform and school choice, insisting on more resources being poured into the present system. They also usually support higher taxes on both individuals and business, which makes it harder to accumulate capital. These organizations should examine the effects of the policies they promote, as they are not in alignment with their stated goals.

If it were possible to increase the prosperity of everyone by simply passing a law, we should do it. But that’s not the way the world works regarding minimum wage laws.

Who is harmed?

Walter Williams explains who is most harmed by minimum wage laws, and also the politics:

How about the politics of the minimum wage? In the political arena, one dumps on people who can’t dump back on him. Minimum wages have their greatest unemployment impact on the least skilled worker. After all, who’s going to pay a worker an hourly wage of $10 if that worker is so unfortunate as to have skills that enable him to produce only $5 worth of value per hour? Who are these workers? For the most part, they are low-skilled teens or young adults, most of whom are poorly educated blacks and Latinos. The unemployment statistics in our urban areas confirm this prediction, with teen unemployment rates as high as 50 percent.

The politics of the minimum wage are simple. No congressman or president owes his office to the poorly educated black and Latino youth vote. Moreover, the victims of the minimum wage do not know why they suffer high unemployment, and neither do most of their “benefactors.” Minimum wage beneficiaries are highly organized, and they do have the necessary political clout to get Congress to price their low-skilled competition out of the market so they can demand higher wages. (Politics and Minimum Wage)

The role of labor unions

Labor unions favor higher minimum wages laws. Why? Here’s what one union said in making its argument: “However, not only is $9/hour a step in the right direction, it is also good for union members, who stand to seek even greater wage increases in their contracts, if they make more than the current minimum wage of $7.25.” ( United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).)

For more on this, see Why Unions Want a Higher Minimum Wage: Labor contracts are often tied to the law — and it reduces the competition for lower-paying jobs.

Minimum wage as competitive weapon

We also need to examine the motivations of business firms that support a higher minimum wage. Sometimes they see a way gain a competitive advantage.

In 2005 Walmart came out in favor of raising the national minimum wage. Providing an example of how regulation is pitched as needed for the common good, Walmart’s CEO said that he was concerned for the plight of working families, and that he thought the current minimum wage of $5.15 per hour was too low. (“Working families.” That’s in the caption of the proposed Kansas law. It’s no coincidence.) If Walmart — a company progressives love to hate as much as any other — can be in favor of increased regulation of the workplace, can regulation be a good thing? Had Walmart discovered the joys of big government?

The answer is yes. Walmart discovered a way of using government regulation as a competitive weapon. This is often the motivation for business support of regulation. In the case of Walmart, it was already paying its employees well over the current minimum wage. At the time, some sources thought that the minimum wage could be raised as much as 50 percent and not cause Walmart any additional cost — its employees already made that much.

But its competitors didn’t pay wages that high. If the minimum wage rose very much, these competitors to Walmart would be forced to increase their wages. Their costs would rise. Their ability to compete with Walmart would be harmed.

In short, Walmart supported government regulation in the form of a higher minimum wage as a way to impose higher costs on its competitors. It found a way to compete outside the marketplace. And it did it while appearing noble.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas school finance and reform, Charles Koch on why he fights for liberty

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The Kansas legislature passed a school finance bill that contains reform measures that the education establishment doesn’t want. In response, our state’s newspapers uniformly support the system rather than Kansas schoolchildren. Then, in the Wall Street Journal Charles Koch explains why liberty is important, and why he’s fighting for that. Episode 39, broadcast April 20, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

In Kansas City, private schools seen as ‘a perversion’

If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between public schools and private schools, a top Kansas school administrator knows the difference:

David A. Smith, Chief of Staff, Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools
David A. Smith, Chief of Staff, Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

David Smith, chief of staff for Kansas City, Kan., public schools, said the bill was targeted at students specifically in low-income districts, including his district. Now, he is trying to figure out what this portion of the bill will mean for public schools.

“It is beyond my comprehension how encouraging students to go to a private school serves the public good,” Smith said. “It is such a perversion of what it means to serve the public that I don’t get it.” (Legislators offer tax credits for scholarships to private schools, KU Statehouse Wire Service via Hays Daily News)

Consider these circumstances:

(a) Parents feel that their children are not thriving in Smith’s public school, and
(b) parents find a private school that they feel will help their children, and
(c) taxpayer money for these students is diverted from Smith’s public school to private schools that are teaching the children.

Is the result of these activities a “perversion?” Isn’t the public also served when children are educated in private schools? And if the private schools do a better job than the public schools, hasn’t the public been delivered better service?

Smith may not realize that if private schools are not doing a good job, students are not forced to attend them. They can go to other schools, including the public schools. But students who are not doing well in Smith’s school don’t have many alternatives. Perhaps none.

The attitude expressed by Smith is a opportunity to recognize and understand the real issue in the debate over schools in Kansas: Which is more important — public schools (and unions, teachers, principals, administrators, superintendents, service employees, school architects, school construction companies) or Kansas schoolchildren?

David A. Smith knows the answer that best serves his interests.

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 values, applied to schools

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

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

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

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

Kansas school spending, per student, from state, local, and federal sources, adjusted for inflation.
Kansas school spending, per student, from state, local, and federal sources, adjusted for inflation.
But we ought to hold public discourse like this to a certain standard, and the pitch made by Kansas Values Institute deserves examination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas school employment ratios

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas newspapers against the children

apple-wormA Kansas newspaper editorial illustrates that for the establishment, schools — the institution of public schools, that is — are more important than students.

An unsigned editorial in the Garden City Telegram proclaimed “Another attempt to undermine public schools materialized last week in the Kansas Statehouse.” (Legislators turn to ALEC for poor plan on schools, March 25, 2014.)

What was in a bill that so worried the Telegram editorial writers? According to the op-ed, the dangerous provisions are “expansion of charter schools, overhaul of teacher licensing and tax breaks for private school scholarships.”

To the Telegram, these ideas are “radical” and would “undermine” public schools. These ideas are from American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), purportedly funded by Charles and David Koch. To low-information newspaper editorialists, the source of an idea alone is sufficient evidence to condemn it. To buttress its argument, the Telegram mentions the Koch Brothers several times along with Americans for Prosperity, the tea party, and other “special interests.”

What’s curious is that the op-ed says “ALEC promotes concepts of free-market enterprise and limited government, which are worthy of discussion in legislative pursuits.” It’s good that the op-ed writers realize this. Very good.

But the next sentence criticizes ALEC’s “one-size-fits-all approach.” That’s a strange claim to make. The education reforms that ALEC supports — and the public school establishment hates — are centered around providing more choices for students and parents. The public schools that the Telegram defends are the “one-size-fits-all approach.” School choice programs foster diversity, creativity, and entrepreneurship in education. Government schools are the opposite.

Further, these school choice programs do not “target” public schools, as claimed in this op-ed. It is true that school choice programs provide competition for public schools. But to say that giving choices to parents and students is targeting public schools assumes a few things: First, it assumes that the institution of public schools is more important than Kansas schoolchildren.

Second, it assumes that public schools are somehow more worthy of taxpayer funds than are charter schools and private schools. But should taxpayer funds be spent where government school bureaucrats want, or where parents believe their children will get the best education?

Third, allowing and encouraging competition is not “targeting.” Proclaiming this reveals lack of understanding of economic competition in markets. In the jungle, the winners kill and eat the losers. But in markets, competition is a discovery process. Competition spurs people to innovate with new products, or become more efficient. As new products and services are discovered and refined through competition, the old products and services must adapt or fall by the wayside. But the old stuff doesn’t die, as do animals in the jungles. People and capital assets from failing enterprises are recycled into the new successful enterprises, and life goes on — except everything is better.

That’s the real problem. Kansas schools are not getting better. Editorials like this are part of the problem. It doesn’t help that the Wichita Eagle excerpted this editorial.

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

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

Rally for school choice in Kansas

Rally for school choice, Topeka, 2014-02-11A grassroots coalition of educators, advocates, parents, and Kansans came together to make the case for school choice in the Kansas State Capitol on 11 February 2014. This was the first capitol rally in Kansas’ history focused on school choice.

Participants included
– Andrea Hillebert of Mater Dei Catholic School in Topeka
– Becky Elder of The Northfield School for the Liberal Arts in Wichita
– James Franko of Kansas Policy Institute
– Jeff Glendening of Americans for Prosperity
– Cristina Fischer of the Kansas Education Freedom Movement
– Chiquita Coggs, co-founder of Holman Academy in Kansas City, KS
– Tammy Hope, Decoding Dyslexia-Kansas
– Derrell Bradford, Better Education for Kids in New Jersey
– Pastor Wade Moore, Christian Faith Centre in Wichita

There is also a podcast holding audio from some of the speakers. View the video below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Voice for Liberty Radio: Rally for school choice

Voice for Liberty logo with microphone 150In this episode of WichitaLiberty Radio: This week children and parents rallied for school choice in the Kansas Capitol. This broadcast features two speakers. First is Derrell Bradford, who is Executive Director at Better Education for New Jersey Kids. The second speaker is Chiquita Coggs, who started a charter school in Kansas City, Kansas that had its charter withdrawn.

This is podcast episode number 12, released on February 16, 2014. Here’s selections from a rally for school choice at the Kansas Capitol, February 11, 2014.

Shownotes

Derrell Bradford, Better Education for Kids
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Moving Kansas Schools from Monopoly to Free Choice
Weak Charter School Law Works Against Taxpayers’ Interests

Kansas school efficiency on display

apple-wormWhen you hear that Kansas schools have “cut to the bone,” or are operating at maximum efficiency, or have nowhere else to cut, or there’s no need to audit school district efficiency, think of this.

When Kansas governmental agencies receive requests for records, they must respond to the requester within three business days. Most often this response does not contain the requested records. Instead, it’s either a statement of how much the records will cost, or a denial of the request.

Every agency I have dealt with — federal, state, city, county — has sent this response by email.

That is, except for USD 259, the Wichita public school district.

wichita-school-district-envelope-records-request-example

The Wichita public school district sends the response in the form of a printed letter, mailed using United States Postal Service Priority Mail at a cost of $5.05 for postage. That’s in addition to the cost of preparing a printed letter. This has happened to me several times.

Every governmental agency I have encountered, except for the Wichita Public School district, is content to use email to respond to records requests, at a very low cost.

Within a budget of over $600 million, five dollars isn’t much. Except: This pattern of wasting money on postage must be repeated many times each year. This waste is also an indication of the district’s attitude towards the spending of taxpayer money.

So when you hear that Kansas schools are grossly underfunded, or that teachers have to spend their personal funds to buy classroom supplies, ask yourself this: “Why does the Wichita public school district spend $5.05 in postage to send something that everyone else sends by email?”

Kansas should let markets regulate schools

School blackboardWhen markets are not allowed to work, we waste energy fighting over laws and volumes of regulations.

Earlier this year the Wichita Eagle made a state-wide issue (literally) out of something that could self-regulate, if only we would let it.

The issue is what proportion of Kansas school spending finds its way “into the classroom” — whatever that means — and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s use of this statistic.

The front page Sunday article (Governor’s numbers come under question) spent over 1,000 words on the topic. It covers where Brownback got the number he uses, the controversy over how to classify spending as “classroom” or other, and troubles surrounding an advocacy group that pushed for more spending going to the classroom.

Why is this issue important? In Kansas, most children attend government schools that are funded and regulated by government. This means that how schools spend money is a political issue. There will be arguments.

In the private sector, however, we don’t see these types of arguments. Do we argue in public about how much the grocery store spends on administrative overhead compared to other spending? Of course not. The managers and owners of the grocery store are intensely interested in this issue. The public is too, but only in how the management of the grocery store affects their shopping experience.

If shoppers don’t like the way a store is managed, they shop somewhere else. Management may notice this and make changes that customers appreciate. If management doesn’t adapt, the store will likely close and be replaced by other stores that do a better job delivering what customers want.

Or, some shoppers may like a high level of management in a grocery store — one with more personal service. Some like a bare-bones store where you sack your groceries yourself. This variation in customer tastes and needs leads to what we observe: Broad diversity in the types of grocery stores shoppers can choose from.

The point is that in the private sector, people get to choose what they like. They choose what’s best for them. But with our system of public schools funded and regulated by government, there is no choice. (Yes, you can escape the public schools and use others, but you still must pay for the government schools, and many families can’t afford to pay for both.)

There’s a factor that leads to this diversity of grocery stores and self-regulation focused on meeting consumers’ needs. It’s market competition.

But Kansas has no market competition in schools, unless you want to escape the system entirely and still pay for it. We have a very weak charter school law, meaning there are very few charter schools in Kansas. We have no vouchers or tax credit scholarships.

If we had these instruments of school choice in Kansas, government schools would face market competition. They would have to start being responsive to customers. We could allow schools to decide for themselves how much to spend on management and things other than the classroom. Market competition would guide schools in structuring their management and budgets to best meet the needs of schoolchildren and parents.

If we had school choice in Kansas, we would have a more diverse slate of schools for parents to select from. We could rely on the nature of markets to self-regulate schools like we rely on markets to regulate grocery stores.

We could quit arguing about things like how much is spent in the classroom, and we could actually focus on teaching children.

But the Kansas school education establishment doesn’t want that. That establishment fights every attempt to introduce even small elements of choice into Kansas.

What Kansas should do

As the Kansas Legislature struggles to end its 2013 session, budgetary and taxation issues remain to be resolved. It’s important that the legislature resolve these issues in a way that positions Kansas for economic growth, rather than retaining the policies that have led to stagnation compared to other states.

Personal income growth, Kansas and selected states, 2013

Here’s what the Kansas Legislature needs to do:

  • Keep the current sales tax rate.
  • Eliminate sales tax on food.
  • Reduce individual income and corporate income tax rates.
  • Get serious about reducing spending.

The legislature should reduce Kansas income tax rates by an amount that would be revenue-neutral, so that state spending does not grow. This moves Kansas towards more of a “Fair Tax” model, which many economists agree is better than taxing income. Elimination of the sales tax on food removes much of the regressive nature of the sales tax.

To the extent that the legislature believes it needs other funds, take it from transportation funding. We’ve spent a lot on roads and highways in recent years. It’s enough for now.

Another important thing the legislature needs to do is get serious about reducing government spending. Kansas lost an important chance to save money — although a relatively small amount — when school choice programs failed to pass. These programs, across the country, save state and local governments money. Unfortunately, Kansas legislative leaders did not use this argument.

Job growth, Kansas and selected states, 2013

How to save

In 2011 the Kansas Legislature lost three opportunities to save money and improve the operations of state government. Three bills, each with this goal, were passed by the House of Representatives, but each failed to pass through the moderate-controlled Senate, or had its contents stripped and replaced with different legislation.

Each of these bills represented a lost opportunity for state government services to be streamlined, delivered more efficiently, or measured and managed. These goals, while always important, are now essential for the success of Kansas government and the state’s economy.

One bill was called the Kansas Streamlining Government Act, another would have created the Kansas Advisory Council on Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships, and another would have created performance measures for state agencies and report that information to the public. More information on these bills is at Kansas budget solution overlooked.

We have to wonder why these bills — or similar measures — were not introduced and advanced this year when the opposition in the Senate is weaker. These are the types of measures we need to take as a state.

Kansas needs to focus on growth when wrapping up session

Oil painting "Tragic Prelude" (1938-40) by John Steuart Curry (1897-1946)

As the Kansas Legislature prepares to end its 2013 session, budgetary and taxation issues remain to be resolved. It’s important that the legislature resolve these issues in a way that positions Kansas for economic growth, rather than retaining the policies that have led to stagnation compared to other states.

First, let’s stop talking about the need to “pay for tax cuts.” The only way in which tax cuts have a cost is if you believe that your income belongs first to government, and then to you. While that schema is preferred by Kansas Progressives, it’s contrary to freedom and destructive to jobs and prosperity. Kansas will be better off if Kansans are able to control more of their own spending, rather than having government spend it for them.

Second, we must remember that the projected “holes in the budget” or deficits have two moving parts: Income and spending. Any deficit or surplus is produced equally by both factors. A reduction in income to the government produces a deficit only if government chooses to keep spending.

Third, let’s stop talking about “irresponsible tax cuts” and how cutting taxes is an “experiment.” To proceed as Kansas has — that would be irresponsible, as we know that Kansas has been underperforming relative to other states. No experimentation is needed. We know that Kansas has not done well.

Fourth, we need to make sure that everyone is starting from the same set of facts. Here’s one example: While critics of the new Kansas tax policy focus on the elimination of state income taxes on certain forms of business organization, marginal tax rates were lowered for everyone. Additionally, the standard deduction was increased for everyone, meaning that zero tax is paid on a larger share of everyone’s income.

But one tax was raised. Kansas had a program that rebated sales tax paid on food. This was limited to those with modest incomes or over a certain age. It is generally recognized that the sales tax is a regressive tax, meaning that those with low incomes pay a larger share of their income in tax. Reducing this perceived inequity was the goal of the credit program.

In recognition of this, Kansas should eliminate the sales tax on food, especially if we keep the current high sales tax rate. This eliminates the clunky tax credit program and lets everyone save on food taxes every day, not just at tax filing time.

Critics also say that taxes were raised on some low income families. This argument is based on some tax credit programs that were eliminated, such as the tax credit for child and dependent care expenses, and another tax credit for child day care expenses. It’s important to remember that these programs were implemented as a tax credits, and they are properly categorized as welfare spending accomplished through the tax system. If we want to keep this welfare spending, let’s do it some other way. Spending through the tax system complicates the understanding of government finances.

What Kansas should do

Here’s what the Kansas Legislature needs to do: Keep the current sales tax rate, eliminate sales tax on food, and reduce individual income and corporate income tax rates. Reduce the income tax rates by an amount that would be revenue-neutral, so that state spending does not grow. This moves us towards more of a “Fair Tax” model, which many economists agree is better than taxing income. Elimination of the sales tax on food removes much of the regressivity of the sales tax.

To the extent that the legislature believes it needs other funds, take it from transportation funding. We’ve spent a lot on roads and highways in recent years. It’s enough for now.

Another important thing the legislature needs to do is get serious about reducing government spending. Kansas lost an important chance to save money — although a relatively small amount — when school choice programs failed to pass. These programs, across the country, save state and local governments money. Unfortunately, Kansas legislative leaders did not use this argument.

More ways to save: In 2011 the Kansas Legislature lost three opportunities to save money and improve the operations of state government. Three bills, each with this goal, were passed by the House of Representatives, but each failed to pass through the moderate-controlled Senate, or had its contents stripped and replaced with different legislation.

Each of these bills represented a lost opportunity for state government services to be streamlined, delivered more efficiently, or measured and managed. These goals, while always important, are now essential for the success of Kansas government and the state’s economy.

One bill was called the Kansas Streamlining Government Act, another would have created the Kansas Advisory Council on Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships, and another would have created performance measures for state agencies and report that information to the public. More information on these bills is at Kansas budget solution overlooked.

We have to wonder why these bills — or similar measures — were not introduced and advanced this year when the opposition in the Senate is weaker. These are the types of measures we need to take as a state.

Kansas editorial writers aren’t helping

Recently it has become fashionable for newspapers to carry editorials bemoaning the current state of affairs in Kansas, contrasting the current regime to a tradition of moderation in Kansas governance. In particular, Governor Sam Brownback is singled out for criticism.

Examples of such columns are Kansas 1861-2013 in the Hutchinson News, Kansas slipping away from its people in the Topeka Capital-Journal, and Which Kansas is that? in the Wichita Eagle.

The common thread in these articles is willing ignorance of the facts. I say willing ignorance because these writers ought to know facts. If they don’t know facts about the Kansas economy and schools, we have to wonder why they are writing editorials that will be read by thousands of Kansans?

Here’s a brief rundown of the state of Kansas:

Kansas population has been growing at a slower rate than the country. A chart is here.

Kansas has been growing jobs at a slower rate than many other states. Here’s a link to an interactive visualization of job growth in the states. You can compare Kansas to any other state or combination of states. Should we be satisfied with the performance of Kansas compared to other states over the past few decades? No, we shouldn’t be satisfied with our record during the period that these editorialists write about.

Kansas has been growing its private-sector gross domestic product at a rate slower than most states. An interactive visualization is here.

Kansas has lost ground in interstate migrants. Many more people leave Kansas for other states than move to Kansas, as can be seen here. In the 2012 United Van Lines migration study, Kansas is seen as “balanced.” But Atlas has more outbound shipments than inbound.

While Kansas newspaper editorial writers like to boast of outstanding public schools, a proper examination of NAEP scores finds that Kansas can’t do better than Texas, a state that we often compare with ourselves in a negative way. Comparing Kansas to national averages, Kansas performs well compared to other states in math and reading in grades four and eight, scoring better than the national average in all these cases. But if we look at the data separated by racial/ethnic subgroups, something different becomes apparent: Kansas lags behind the national average in some of these areas. A table of these figures is here.

Regarding Texas again: Editorial writers say that because Texas has no income tax, its property and sales taxes are higher. Perhaps. But overall, Texas collects less taxes from its citizens. In 2011 Kansas state government collected $2,378 in taxes for each person. Texas collected $1,682. Texas may have higher sales or property taxes than Kansas, but the total tax burden in Texas is lower.

Spending follows the same pattern. In 2011 Kansas state government spent $5,115 per person in total, with $1,974 in general fund spending and $130 in bond spending. For Texas the total was $3,718 spent per person in total, with $1,654 in general fund spending and $50 in bond spending. The lower level of spending means Texas has a less burdensome state government, which allows more money to remain in the productive private sector. In Kansas, we spend more on government.

The “sea of oil” and bountiful severance tax revenue that newspaper editorial writers say benefits Texas but not Kansas: In 2011 Kansas, which has a severance tax of its own, collected $42.54 in this form of tax for each person. Texas collected $104.29 per person in its severance tax. The difference between the two — $61.75 per person per year — is only a small portion of the difference between Kansas and Texas taxation.

I could go on. But the more facts one states, the more criticism one receives.

It’s not that what our governor is doing is perfect. It wasn’t the best course to single out certain forms of business organization to receive tax cuts. Everyone should have their taxes cut the same way.

Governor Brownback still meddles in the economy, supporting harmful policies like the renewable portfolio standard for electricity generation. The Hutchinson News editorial wrote of how “Kansas proved to be a state teeming with inventiveness, ingenuity, determination and a savvy sense of business” and mentioned iconic Kansas-founded companies like Cessna, Beech, Stearman, Coleman, Pizza Hut, and White Castle. But today our state is strangling entrepreneurs, expanding control over economic development under the Brownback regime. Kansas has expanded the realm of public-private partnerships to the detriment of entrepreneurship. Cities like Wichita implement new regulations over industries like parking lot striping, taxicab driving, and haunted house attractions.

Instead of moving to a modern pension system for state employees, we’re considering borrowing money to cover up the mistakes of the past, with no reform forthcoming and few lessons learned.

Most inexplicably, Governor Brownback was absent in this year’s debate over important school reform measures like charter schools and school choice. These are initiatives that are working in other states, but not in Kansas.

It isn’t supportive of our state (or county, city, or school district) to overlook facts in order to create a false impression of a prosperous state with successful schools. Yet that’s exactly what these newspaper editorials want us to do.

If we don’t learn the facts and if we don’t accept the facts, we don’t have a common base of understanding and a common starting point for debate. Even if the facts are uncomfortable — especially then — we must recognize where we’ve been and what is the actual condition of our state.

Hoping that Kansans won’t notice might be politically expedient. Both parties can be guilty of valuing political gain more than the health of Kansas. But it’s a severe loss to Kansas that these newspaper editorial writers will not recognize facts, and a shame that they prefer political attacks to reality.

Kansas school choice defeated

The Kansas House of Representatives has failed, both in committee and on the floor, to pass legislation enabling tax credit scholarships for low-income and special needs students. This marks a low point in the legislative session, and it appears that Kansas schoolchildren will need to wait another year to have the same freedom and opportunity that children in many states enjoy.

Listening to the debate was an experience in frustration at the arguments of defenders of the status quo and the inability of reformers to counter. An example is Representative Jim Ward of Wichita. In his remarks, Ward started by saying he had to “categorically reject” the arguments that schools are not meeting the needs of students, and that we are not educating world-class students. He mentioned several examples, adding that our public schools are doing an excellent job.

Rep. Ward’s anecdotal evidence aside, the broader picture of Kansas schools is not as glowing. Many in Kansas say that our schools are much better than Texas schools. They cite National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores. 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. See Kansas school test scores, in perspective for tables.

kansas-texas-naep-test-scores-2011

Kansas students, considering the entire state, 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.

Comparing Kansas to the nation: Kansas does better than the national average in all cases. But if we look at the data separated by racial/ethnic subgroups, something different becomes apparent: Kansas lags behind the national average in some of these areas. See Kansas school supporters should look more closely for tables.

Ward then claimed that Kansas schools are “operating on a per-pupil funding from 1992.” I don’t have figures going back that far, but as can be seen in the following chart, school spending has been rising over the long haul, even when allowing for inflation.

Kansas school spending per student, adjusted for CPI

While Rep. Ward spun a tale of a handful of very expensive special education students, he — like other public school spending advocates — wants you to ignore the entirety of school spending and just focus on a small part of that spending.

Ward then turned to the purported lack of accountability and oversight of the schools that might receive tax credit scholarship money. He praised how the state holds Kansas public schools accountable.

The reality, however, is different. First, Kansas has low standards, compared to other states.

Further, Kansas standards have declined over the years. Last year Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker wrote 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 is independent, this rising trend in student achievement does not appear. In some measures, for some recent years, the performance of Kansas students has declined.

How can it be that one series of tests scores are rising, but not others? Kansas school administrators don’t have a good answer for this. But there is a good reason: The Kansas test scores are subject to manipulation for political reasons.

In 2006 Kansas implemented new tests, and the state specifically warns that comparisons with previous years — like 2001 — are not valid. A KSDE document titled Kansas Assessments in Reading and Mathematics 2006 Technical Manual states so explicitly: “As the baseline year of the new round of assessments, the Spring 2006 administration incorporated important changes from prior KAMM assessments administered in the 2000 — 2005 testing cycle. Curriculum standards and targets for the assessments were changed, test specifications revised, and assessed grade levels expanded to include students in grades 3-8 and one grade level in high school. In effect, no comparison to past student, building, district, or state performance should be made.” (emphasis added.)

Despite this warning, DeBacker and Kansas school superintendents make an invalid statistical comparison. This is not an innocent mistake.

On other tests, only 28 percent of Kansas students are ready for college-level work in all four subjects the ACT test covers. While this result was slightly better than the national average, it means that nearly three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates need to take one or more remedial college courses.

Is this the accountability that Kansans like Rep. Ward are promoting? Compared to the accountability that parents can exercise when they have a credible threat of sending their child to a different school?

Kansas now faces the danger of falling behind other states in school reform measures such as charter schools, schools choice, teacher tenure reform, and collective bargaining reform. Somehow, other states are able to implement reforms that we in Kansas will not.

Wichita has school choice, they say

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Kansas, arguing about the wrong school issues

School blackboardSunday’s Wichita Eagle makes a state-wide issue (literally) out of something that could self-regulate, if only we would let it.

The issue is what proportion of Kansas school spending finds its way “into the classroom” — whatever that means — and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s use of this statistic.

The front page Sunday article (Governor’s numbers come under question) spent over 1,000 words on the topic. It covers where Brownback got the number he uses, the controversy over how to classify spending as “classroom” or other, and troubles surrounding an advocacy group that pushed for more spending going to the classroom.

Why is this issue important? In Kansas, most children attend government schools that are funded and regulated by government. This means that how schools spend money is a political issue. There will be arguments.

In the private sector, however, we don’t see these types of arguments. Do we argue in public about how much the grocery store spends on administrative overhead compared to other spending? Of course not. The managers and owners of the grocery store are intensely interested in this issue. The public is too, but only in how the management of the grocery store affects their shopping experience.

If shoppers don’t like the way a store is managed, they shop somewhere else. Management may notice this and make changes that customers appreciate. If management doesn’t adapt, the store will likely close and be replaced by other stores that do a better job delivering what customers want.

Or, some shoppers may like a high level of management in a grocery store — one with more personal service. Some like a bare-bones store where you sack the groceries yourself. This variation in customer tastes and needs leads to what we observe: diversity in the types of grocery stores shoppers can choose from.

The point is that in the private sector, people get to choose what they like. They choose what’s best for them. But with our system of public schools funded and regulated by government, there is no choice. (Yes, you can escape the public schools and use others, but you still must pay for the government schools.)

There’s a factor that leads to this diversity of grocery stores and self-regulation focused on meeting consumers’ needs. It’s market competition.

But Kansas has no market competition in schools, unless you want to escape the system entirely and still pay for it. We have a very weak charter school law, meaning there are very few charter schools in Kansas. We have no vouchers or tax credit scholarships.

If we had these instruments of school choice in Kansas, government schools would face market competition. They would have to start being responsive to customers. We could allow schools to decide for themselves how much to spend on management and things other than the classroom. Market competition would guide schools in structuring their management and budgets to best meet the needs of schoolchildren and parents.

If we had school choice in Kansas, we would have a more diverse slate of schools for parents to select from. We could rely on the nature of markets to self-regulate schools like we rely on markets to regulate grocery stores.

We could quit arguing about things like how much is spent in the classroom, and we could actually focus on teaching children.

But the Kansas school education establishment doesn’t want that. That establishment fights every attempt to introduce even small elements of choice into Kansas. We’ll see this soon as several bills facilitating school choice are introduced in the Kansas Legislature.

Why don’t Kansas children have options?

School

School choice programs in some states are targeted at children with special needs, as in Oklahoma with its Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program.

Children in Kansas don’t have the same opportunity that Oklahoma schoolchildren have.

The following video illustrates the difference school choice can make to special needs students. Visit WhyNotKansas.com to learn more.

Kansas teachers union rallies members

Kansas National Education Association (KNEA)

Under the email subject heading “Special edition! Action needed!” Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union, rallies its members to take action against legislation under consideration by the Kansas Legislature. Kansans ought to be aware of the faulty arguments the union makes.

The legislation is HB 2023. The fiscal note for the bill summarizes it as follows: “HB 2023 relates to professional employees’ organizations (PEOs). The bill makes it unlawful for any PEO to use any dues, fees, assessments or any period payment deducted from a member’s paycheck for the purpose of engaging in political activities. If a member wishes to donate money for political activity by the PEO, a specific donation must be made to a separate fund so designated. The bill defines political activity for the purpose of enforcement of its provisions. The bill amends the Public Employer-Employee Relations Act (PEERA) to make it unlawful for a public employee organization to spend any of its income to engage in public activities.”

Here are some of the claims and arguments KNEA uses.

KNEA: HB 2023 takes away a worker’s control over his or her own paycheck.

It’s laughable that an organization whose primary purpose is to garner as much tax revenue as possible would complain about control over paychecks. KNEA, where is your concern for taxpayers’ paychecks?

KNEA: Aren’t Republicans all about keeping government OUT of our personal lives?

No. Many — okay, most — Republicans support all sorts of intrusions into our personal lives.

KNEA: Why does this bill restrict union political activity while corporate political activity is entirely unregulated even if the corporation derives much of its income from government contracts?

This argument fails to recognize the difference between government and the private sector. The public schools are the embodiment of government, even though they hate the term “government schools.” Their revenue is conscripted from unwilling taxpayers. While taxpayers might also dislike paying for everything the government purchases from corporations, most government contracts are put for competitive bid. I wonder: Would public schools be willing to compete for students, like corporations must compete for government contracts? The answer can be found in the KNEA’s attitude towards school choice, which is absolutely not.

KNEA: Why does this bill restrict union political activity while corporate political activity is entirely unregulated even without the consent of stockholders?

In most situations stockholders are able to voluntarily select the corporations whose shares they want to own. But taxpayers are not able to choose whether to support public schools and their unions.

By the way, in defined benefit pension plans like KPERS, which teachers belong to, there is no choice in the investments the plan makes on your behalf.

Kansas school efficiency task force report

In an effort to spur greater efficiency in Kansas public schools, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback created a school efficiency task force. The task force has released its report, which may be viewed here.

While some of the recommendations are very useful and should be implemented, some are minor in nature, and some — especially the ones that would reduce the power of the teachers union — will be very difficult to implement. There is also a list of mostly generic “best practices,” such as “Look for savings on utilities.” The task force also solicited anonymous suggestions from the public, and a representative sample is included.

Two specific recommendations relate to the issue of the various funds schools use and their balances. This has been a contentious issue, with schools defending the need for large (and increasing) fund balances. See Kansas schools have used funds to increase spending for background.

School districts have complained that the state has been late in making its payments. School districts use this as an argument for the need for high fund balances. So it’s not surprising to see this recommendation: “Place a priority emphasis on the timely transfer of state payments to school districts in June and January.”

There’s also this recommendation: “Legislatively eliminate, reduce, and consolidate the statutory cash reserve accounts and separate fund accounts that currently exist, thereby ending the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ policy and allowing the funding contained in each fund category to be more broadly spent across the full variety of educational requirements. Accounts that remain, including the General Fund, should be allowed a modest amount of carryover from year to year.”

The explanation tells us that the current system of accounts restricts school districts’ ability to effectively use funding. And obviously, “use-it-or-lose-it” is a bad policy.

There is also the recommendation to form a definition of what counts as “instructional” spending, and whether the current target of 65 percent instruction spending is the best goal.

In school bond issue campaigns, a popular selling point made to voters is that the state will pay for some of the bond payments. It’s pitched as free money, or at least as a way to get back the money the taxpayers have been sending to Topeka to pay for other school districts’ bonds. So another recommendation is to consider reevaluating this program.

The issue of accounting and data management is addressed, with examples of the state requiring reports that are “cumbersome, inefficient, and time-consuming” to provide. The reports calls for data to be trackable down to the building level, and made more readily available to the public.

There are also recommendations that are sure to be opposed by Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union. These include a review of teacher tenure, seen as limiting administrators’ ability to efficiently allocate resources. Instead of the strict salary schedule that is currently used, the report recommends a salary range, which could include factors like experience and area of expertise.

There is also recommended a reduction in the matters that are subject to negotiation with the union, specifically mentioning “work hours, amount of work, insurance benefits, force reductions, professional evaluation procedures, etc.” as no longer subject to mandatory negotiation.

Missing from the dialog

Perhaps it was not included in the mandate given to this task force, but missing from the recommendations is using the power of markets to improve the education of Kansas schoolchildren.

For example: Private sector firms don’t need to be told to “Look for savings on utilities.” The profit motive induces them to do things like this, either to earn a better return on investment, or in the case of non-profit institutions, to better serve more customers (students).

While public education spending advocates insist that schools shouldn’t be subject to the same competitive market forces that rule the business world, competition works wonders in states where it is allowed to exist. Since Kansas has a very weak charter school law (and therefore very few charter schools) and no school choice through vouchers or tax credit scholarships, Kansas schoolchildren don’t benefit from the dynamism that we see in other states.

We also don’t experience the cost savings that states with school choice see. The The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has found — over and over — that school choice programs save money.

Unfortunately, Governor Brownback has not expressed support for school choice programs, or even for charter schools.

Schools are sure to oppose most of the recommendations, even those that are the hallmark of good government. An example is a KSN Television news story which reported that Newton school superintendent John Morton thinks it is “a real concern” when citizens have access to data about government spending. This is a common reaction by government bureaucrats and officials. They prefer to operate without citizen scrutiny.

Finally, there is this irony: The Kansas school bureaucracy says that everything they do “is for the kids.” You might think that they would already be doing everything they can to increase school efficiency in order to benefit students. They have much of the power they need to do this. It’s time to see whether they’re actually willing to act in the best interests of Kansas schoolchildren, and for taxpayers, too.

Kansas Governor’s School Efficiency Task Force Recommendations

Kansas parents lack power

Compared to other states, parents in Kansas have little power to exercise control over school decisions, according to the Center for Education Reform.

The center’s recent Parent Power Index ranks Kansas forth-seventh among the states. Its overall assessment of Kansas is “The Sunflower State has a less than sunny outlook for reform, making it more difficult for parents to find new and more effective options for their children. Like other rural states, Kansas offers some access to digital learning modalities, but other than that, parents have few choices and few assurances that teacher quality is acceptable.”

For the report for Kansas, click here.

Winners and losers in Kansas school finance lawsuit

Who are the winners and losers now that the decision in Gannon vs. Kansas — better known as the Kansas school finance lawsuit — has been reached?

The decision reached by the court is that Kansas schools are unconstitutionally underfunded. While it is most commonly reported that the decision requires Kansas to spend an additional $440 million per year on schools, the actual amount of increased spending will be $594 million per year. This is because of the mechanism of the local option budget, according to Kansas Policy Institute. The decision is being appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

The winners are the Kansas school spending establishment. These are the people who are devoted to spending more on Kansas schools — without regard to need, or whether the spending increases student achievement, or whether the spending is harmful to the Kansas economy. The main cheerleader for this team is Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union. Although not a party to the suit, Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) is a winner, too. Kansans should remember a story told by Kansas House of Representatives member Arlen Siegfreid of a conversation he had with KASB lobbyist Mark Tallman: “During our discussion I asked Mr. Tallman if we (the State) had the ability to give the schools everything he asked for would he still ask for even more money for schools. His answer was, ‘Of course, that’s my job.'”

An obvious group of losers is Kansas taxpayers. Obviously.

The people who truly lost, and who will suffer the most from the court’s decision, are Kansas schoolchildren. That’s because most people believe the problems with Kansas schools — whatever they are — can be solved with more spending. Certainly that’s the position taken by school system bureaucrats and others who benefit from increased school spending.

These advocates for spending conveniently ignore that school spending has been on a long upward trajectory, while at the same time test scores are steady or even falling in some cases. But school spending is an easy issue. Appeals that tug on heartstrings — “It’s for the kids” — are easy to make. And it’s easy to spend more on schools — at least easier than the real reforms that will help Kansas schoolchildren.

The relevant part of the Kansas Constitution states: “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” It’s a good thing for the state’s education bureaucracy the Constitution doesn’t say “the state shall provide a suitable education.” We’d be in a lot of trouble.

The state of Kansas schools

Those who think Kansas schools are doing well should compare Kansas NAEP scores with those of Texas. See Kansas school test scores, in perspective for an explanation of why Kansas test scores seem to be much better than other states.

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

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

How can it be that one series of tests scores are rising, but not others? Kansas school administrators don’t have a good answer for this. But there is a good reason: The Kansas test scores are subject to manipulation for political reasons.

In 2006 Kansas implemented new tests, and the state specifically warns that comparisons with previous years — like 2001 — are not valid. A KSDE document titled Kansas Assessments in Reading and Mathematics 2006 Technical Manual states so explicitly: “As the baseline year of the new round of assessments, the Spring 2006 administration incorporated important changes from prior KAMM assessments administered in the 2000 — 2005 testing cycle. Curriculum standards and targets for the assessments were changed, test specifications revised, and assessed grade levels expanded to include students in grades 3-8 and one grade level in high school. In effect, no comparison to past student, building, district, or state performance should be made.” (emphasis added.)

Despite this warning, DeBacker and Kansas school superintendents make an invalid statistical comparison. This is not an innocent mistake. This is an actual example of — turning the superintendents’ quote on themselves — “data that was used out of context, completely misrepresenting the truth.”

On other tests, only 28 percent of Kansas students are ready for college-level work in all four subjects the ACT test covers. While this result was slightly better than the national average, it means that nearly three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates need to take one or more remedial college courses.

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

Kansas school standards

Last summer Kansas schools received a waiver from participating in the No Child Left Behind program. KSDE reported: “Another key component of the state’s waiver is related to evaluating teachers and school leaders. Among the criteria for achieving a waiver request was implementing an evaluation system that includes student achievement as a significant factor in the evaluation. The Kansas plan calls for appointing a commission to identify the most effective means of tying student achievement to teacher and leader evaluations and building that into the existing Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol (KEEP).”

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

Last year Kansas school superintendents wrote an op-ed proclaiming the high standards and performance of Kansas schools. But what Kansans ought to take notice of is the superintendents’ claim in this sentence: “Historically, our state has had high-performing schools, which make Kansas a great place to live, raise a family and run a business.”

The truth is that when compared to other states, Kansas has low standards.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has analyzed state standards, and we can see that Kansas has standards that are below most states. The table of figures is available at Estimated NAEP scale equivalent scores for state proficiency standards, for reading and mathematics in 2009, by grade and state. An analysis of these tables by the Kansas Policy Institute shows that few states have standards below the Kansas standards.

This table is from KPI’s report in 2012 titled Removing Barriers to Better Public Education: Analyzing the facts about student achievement and school spending.

The conclusion by NCES is “… most states’ proficiency standards are at or below NAEP’s definition of Basic performance.” KPI, based on simple analysis of the NCES data, concluded: “Kansas is one of those states, with its Reading Proficiency standard set lower than what the U.S. Department of Education considers Basic performance. Math Proficiency levels are above what NAEP considers to be Basic but still well below the U.S. standard for Proficient.”

Should we spend more on Kansas schools?

Education is vitally important, school officials tell us. They’re right — and that’s why the education of Kansas schoolchildren is too important to be exclusively in the hands of government.

The school finance lawsuits illustrate this. Suppose that the court is right, and that increased spending will fix the problems with schools. How many years will pass before the solution is implemented? And even if we immediately start spending more, do we really think it will improve student outcomes, in light of our past experience?

The solution for Kansas schoolchildren is increased school choice, through charter schools and either vouchers or tax credit scholarships. This is what we are missing in Kansas. With greater choices available to students and parents, there will be less need for government oversight of schools and all the bickering that accompanies decisions made through the political process.

This is the reform that will most help Kansas schoolchildren. It will cost less and improve outcomes. It doesn’t require fleets of education bureaucrats and stacks of plans and regulations. But it does require the school establishment to give up some power and their stranglehold on the use of public funds for schools.

Unfortunately, we’re not moving in that direction in Kansas. Recently in Wichita, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback had two opportunities to promote school choice in Kansas. On the Joseph Ashby radio program he was asked about school choice, but wouldn’t commit to it as a priority.

Later that day at the Wichita Pachyderm Club a similar question was asked, and again Brownback wouldn’t commit to school choice. The focus right now is efficiency and to get fourth grade reading levels up, Brownback said. He added that about 28 percent of fourth graders can’t read at basic level, which he described as a “real problem. If you can’t read, the world starts really shrinking around you.”

It’s a mystery why Governor Brownback hasn’t made school choice a priority in Kansas. Many governors are doing that and instituting other wide-reaching reforms.

Kansas budget solution overlooked

As Kansas prepares for a legislative session that must find ways to balance a budget in the face of declining revenues, not all solutions are being considered.

Generally, the choices are presented as either raising revenues or cutting services. An example comes from H. Edward Flentje of Wichita State University. In a recent op-ed, he presents two solutions: (a) raising more revenue, by canceling the recently-passed tax cuts and retaining the current sales tax rate hike instead of letting it expire, or (b) cutting services. (H. Edward Flentje : State facing fiscal cliff, December 16, 2012 Wichita Eagle)

In the Kansas City Star, Steve Rose made a similar argument.

I hope that “cutting services” means cutting spending on services, not the actual level of services the state provides, although that could probably use some trimming, too.

How much spending does the state need to cut? Kansas Policy Institute has calculated that a one-time spending cut of 8.5 percent, followed by spending growth of four percent per year, would produce a balanced budget with ending balances.

Does anyone think this goal can’t be met? If not, then perhaps cutting four percent in each of the next two years could be a goal.

But either way, we can cut spending while maintaining services people have become accustomed to expect from government. Remaking government is a way to do this. We can make government more efficient, despite the claims that it is impossible to do so.

As an example, in 2010 the Wichita school district saved $2.5 million per year by adjusting school starting times, thereby saving on transportation costs. This was after district officials claimed — repeatedly — there was nothing they could cut. Spending had already been “cut to the bone,” officials said.

When we see incidents like this, the governing body trumpets the savings, and then, unfortunately, often stops looking for savings. But we need to keep looking. An example of a way to save money is school choice.

School choice saves states money

While proponents of public school spending argue that school choice programs drain away dollars from what they claim are 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.

Further research on school choice programs funded through tax credits confirms this.

Other ways to save

In 2011 the Kansas Legislature lost three opportunities to save money and improve the operations of state government. Three bills, each with this goal, were passed by the House of Representatives, but each failed to pass through the moderate-controlled Senate, or had its contents stripped and replaced with different legislation.

Each of these bills represents a lost opportunity for state government services to be streamlined, delivered more efficiently, or measured and managed. These goals, while always important, are now essential for the success of Kansas government and the state’s economy.

Kansas Streamlining Government Act

HB 2120, according to its supplemental note, “would establish the Kansas Streamlining Government Act, which would have the purpose of improving the performance, efficiency, and operations of state government by reviewing certain state agencies, programs, boards, and commissions.” Fee-funded agencies — examples include Kansas dental board and Kansas real estate commission — would be exempt from this bill.

In more detail, the text of the bill explains: “The purposes of the Kansas streamlining government act are to improve the performance, streamline the operations, improve the effectiveness and efficiency, and reduce the operating costs of the executive branch of state government by reviewing state programs, policies, processes, original positions, staffing levels, agencies, boards and commissions, identifying those that should be eliminated, combined, reorganized, downsized or otherwise altered, and recommending proposed executive reorganization orders, executive orders, legislation, rules and regulations, or other actions to accomplish such changes and achieve such results.”

In testimony in support of this legislation, Dave Trabert, President of Kansas Policy Institute offered testimony that echoed findings of the public choice school of economics and politics: “Some people may view a particular expenditure as unnecessary to the fulfillment of a program’s or an agency’s primary mission while others may see it as essential. Absent an independent review, we are expecting government employees to put their own self-interests aside and make completely unbiased decisions on how best to spend taxpayer funds. It’s not that government employees are intentionally wasteful; it’s that they are human beings and setting self-interests aside is challenge we all face.”

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 79 to 40. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Federal and State Affairs, where it did not advance. HB 2120 died in a senate committee chaired by Pete Brungardt, who was defeated in August.

Privatization and public-private partnerships

Another bill that did not advance was HB 2194, which in its original form would have created the Kansas Advisory Council on Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships.

According to the supplemental note for the bill, “The purpose of the Council would be to ensure that certain state agencies, including the Board of Regents and postsecondary educational institutions, would: 1) focus on the core mission and provide goods and services efficiently and effectively; 2) develop a process to analyze opportunities to improve efficiency, cost-effectiveness and provide quality services, operations, functions, and activities; and 3) evaluate for feasibility, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency opportunities that could be outsourced. Excluded from the state agencies covered by the bill would be any entity not receiving State General Fund or federal funds appropriation.”

This bill passed by a vote of 68 to 51 in the House of Representatives. It did not advance in the Senate, falling victim to a “gut-and-go” maneuver where its contents were replaced with legislation on an entirely different topic. Steve Morris, president of the Kansas Senate and a member of the moderate coalition, chaired the committee that killed this legislation. He won’t be in the Senate next year.

Performance measures

Another bill that didn’t pass the entire legislature was HB 2158, which would have created performance measures for state agencies and reported that information to the public. The supplemental note says that the bill “as amended, would institute a new process for modifying current performance measures and establishing new standardized performance measures to be used by all state agencies in support of the annual budget requests. State agencies would be required to consult with representatives of the Director of the Budget and the Legislative Research Department to modify each agency’s current performance measures, to standardize such performance measures, and to utilize best practices in all state agencies.” Results of the performance measures would be posted on a public website.

This bill passed the House of Representatives by a nearly unanimous vote of 119 to 2, with Wichita’s Nile Dillmore and Geraldine Flaharty the two nay votes.

Opposition to these bills from Democrats often included remarks on the irony of those who were recently elected on the promise of shrinking government now proposing to enlarge government through the creation of these commissions and councils. These bills, however, proposed to spend modest amounts increasing the manageability of government, not the actual range and scope of government itself. As it turns out, many in the legislature — this includes Senate Republicans who initiated or went along with the legislative maneuvers that killed these bills — are happy with the operations of state government remaining in the shadows.

HB 2158 was victim of a “gut-and-go” maneuver in a committee chaired by Carolyn McGinn, another member of the moderate coalition. She will be returning to the senate next year, but probably won’t have the ability to stop legislation like this.

Kansas Democrats wrong on school spending

While the Kansas Democratic Party apologized last week for misstating candidates’ voting record on two mail pieces, the party and its candidates continue a campaign of misinformation regarding spending on Kansas public schools.

Many of the allegations are made against Kansas Governor Sam Brownback for purportedly cutting school spending. An example is on the Kansas Democratic Party Facebook page, which can be seen nearby.

As part of the party’s website, on a page titled Restore Education Funding, Kansas Democrats make this claim:

An Education Fact

Between FY2008-2009 and FY2011-2012, general state aid to education was cut by nearly $400 million. In just thee [sic] years, that’s a reduction of $620 for every schoolchild in the state.

This claim is repeated on candidates’ web sites, such as this example from senatorial candidate Tim Snow, which reads: “In the last three years, conservatives in Topeka have slashed education spending by $620 per student.”

The problem is that these claims aren’t factual. Consider the numbers from the Kansas Democrat website. In 2008-2009 Kansas state spending on schools was $3,287,165,278, according to the Kansas State Department of Education. In 2011-2012, that figure was $3,184,163,559. That’s a difference of $103,001,719, which is a long way from $400 million, the number claimed by Democrats.

Looking at spending per pupil figures, the change was from $7,344 to $6,983. That’s $361, not $620 as Democrats claim.

The Democrats are also considering only Kansas state spending on schools, neglecting federal and local sources of funds. In the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 schools years, federal aid soared as a result of the Obama stimulus program. These funds almost made up for the decline in state spending, meaning that total spending on Kansas schools declined only slightly.

(You’d think that Kansas Democrats would want to remind us of the supposedly wonderful things the Obama stimulus accomplished, but evidently not when the facts are inconvenient.)

Then, who was Kansas governor during the years that Kansas state spending on schools declined? Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson. They’re Democrats, I believe.

There are more examples of Democrats misleading Kansans. Here’s Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley: “But Gov. Brownback is acting on the assumption that schools aren’t stretching every dollar to the last cent, even after he made the largest cut to public education in Kansas history.” (Dems seek input from parents, educators on impact of school funding cuts.) (emphasis added)

Paul Davis, the Kansas House of Representatives Minority Leader, was quoted in the Lawrence Journal-World as saying “Instead of hosting an online forum to complain about public schools, why not discuss all the innovative ways our teachers and administrators have done more with less since Gov. Brownback implemented the largest cut to education funding in Kansas history?” (emphasis added)

Hensley and Davis are two of the top Democrats in Kansas, absolutely so in the Kansas Legislature.

It’s easy to understand why Democrats focus on school spending. It’s easy to persuade parents — and anyone, for that matter — that if we want the best for Kansas schoolchildren, we need to spend more.

More spending in schools means more spending in largely Democratic hands, and more public sector union members, a key Democratic constituency.

The school spending advocates have done a good job promoting their issue, too. On a survey, not only did Kansans underestimate school spending levels, they did so for the state portion of school funding, and again for the total of all funding sources — state, federal, and local. Kansans also thought spending had declined, when it had increased. See Kansans uninformed on school spending. Similar findings have been reported across the country.

Spending more on schools is seen as an easy way to solve a problem. But the problems facing Kansas schools will require different approaches, and the Kansas school establishment won’t consider them. For a list of reforms that are needed, but resisted, see Kansas school reform issues.

Kansas Democrats should consider themselves fortunate that our governor isn’t pressing for the reform that Democrats really hate: school choice.

Looking for Kansas school efficiency, sort of

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback started an online Kansas school efficiency task force inefficiency form. In response, Kansas House Democrats have launched a Kansas K12 efficiency survey.

The Democratic survey contains a few loaded questions that are sure to influence the responses received. For example: “Please describe – as specifically as possible – how the reduction of state public education funding has impacted you, your child, or your school directly (larger class sizes, higher fees, higher property taxes, eliminated programs, fired teachers, etc).”

First: Spending on schools in Kansas has fallen some in recent years, but just a little bit, as you can see in the chart. The question above specifically references state spending. That, as you can also see, did fall for a few years, but the difference was almost totally matched by an increase in federal spending. That fall in state spending, by the way, happened under the administration of Democratic governors.

Kansas school spending per student through 2012.

Second: The question also mentions “larger class sizes” and “fired teachers.” These are personnel issues. If we look at the ratio of students to employees, we see these ratios have changed. For a time they were decreasing, meaning that there fewer students per employee, considering either teachers only or all employees. These numbers have inched back up. But the student/teacher ratio today is still better than it was in 2005.

Kansas school student/employee ratios.

Another question reads: “Please describe – as specifically as possible – how your school has INCREASED efficiency as a result of reduced state funding.”

The use of capitalization to emphasize a specific word lets us know that only increased efficiency stories are welcome. Besides that, there’s a troubling premise in the question, that schools will look to increase efficiency only when funding is reduced. We might think that schools should always be looking for ways to increase efficiency. That lets them either operate on smaller budgets, or deliver more and better education for the same budget.

Kansas Democratic legislative leaders, however, don’t see things quite that way. They are offended by suggestions that schools aren’t operating as efficiently as possible, charging that critics are demonizing schools.

But schools can operate more efficiently. In 2010, despite claims that school spending had been “cut to the bone,” USD 259, the Wichita public school district, found a way to save $2.5 million per year by adjusting school starting times, thereby saving on transportation costs.

If we really believe that schools are underfunded, and that underfunding is harming children, why didn’t the Wichita school district look for and implement this cost-saving measure earlier? Was the threat of reduced funding the necessary impetus, as implied in the Democrats’ questions?

Surely this isn’t all that can be saved. Kansas Policy Institute looked at K-12 spending in Kansas and concluded that schools statewide are spending as much as $717 million more than is necessary, and that implementing the “best practices” of more efficient districts could eliminate the need to raise taxes or cut spending on other essential services. Volume 3: Analysis of K-12 Spending in Kansas of KPI’s series “A Kansas Primer on Education Funding” also found that, despite district claims that they are underfunded, most districts haven’t spent all of the money they received in past years.

The competing online survey forms illustrate a problem inherent with Kansas public schools that we don’t see in the private sector. Do we worry whether the grocery store is operating efficiently? No, because the grocery store faces market competition for customers and capital. But Kansas schools — because there is no effective school choice in Kansas — don’t face competition for customers in any meaningful way, and their capital is free of cost. Kansas Democrats (and their moderate Republican allies) fight against school choice to keep it that way.

We also have to wonder whether Kansas Democrats are really interested in finding school inefficiencies. Eliminating many inefficiencies will mean reducing the number of workers, and government workers are a key constituent of Democrats.

Role of government in Kansas schools deflects attention from solutions

Focus on two Kansas school efficiency panels, school spending, and the surrounding politics is deflecting attention away from what Kansas schoolchildren and parents really need: Choice.

As part of an effort to increase the efficiency of Kansas public schools, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback announced an online portal for reporting inefficiencies. People may remain anonymous if the want. To view the form or report an inefficiency, click on Kansas school efficiency task force inefficiency form.

Here’s an example to get started: I have received several letters from the Wichita School District using priority mail — an expensive service — to me one sheet of paper. Other government agencies are content to deliver similar correspondence by email.

This effort, like the Kansas school efficiency task force itself has been harshly criticized by those in the school system. An example from Twitter yesterday is this: “Another Brownback salvo against public education. An insult to all KS schools. Red meat for the uneducated.”

In response to the governor’s task force, another has been created by KASB, the Kansas Association of School Boards. Its purpose, as described in Topeka Capital-Journal reporting, is to “to analyze options available to local district officials to maximize educational return on investments in K-12 public schools.”

One might think that the prime mission of a school board advocacy group would already be to “maximize educational return on investments.” What could be more important when considering the lives of Kansas schoolchildren and the plight of taxpayers?

But I guess schools have to be prodded a bit. Does anyone notice the irony: Those already in charge of Kansas public schools have had the power to implement efficiency measures. They don’t need permission or a task force.

There’s an incongruity here. On one hand, the public schools are (almost) entirely dependent on tax revenue for their funding. But public school officials object to the term “government schools.” In an email from Wichita School District Interim Superintendent Martin Libhart to Wichita school employees during the 2008 bond issue campaign, he took issue with those who, using his words, “openly refer to public education as ‘government schools.'” To him, this is something that shouldn’t be mentioned.

I don’t blame them. Last year ABC News reported on the low opinion Americans have of government: “Only 26 percent of Americans in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll say they’re optimistic about ‘our system of government and how well it works,’ down 7 points since October to the fewest in surveys dating to 1974. Almost as many, 23 percent, are pessimistic, the closest these measures ever have come. The rest, a record high, are ‘uncertain’ about the system.”

Schools want (what they consider) the good things about government — people being forced to pay taxes to support them — while at the same time they try to avoid the justifiably low esteem in which people hold government programs.

Governmental decisions are made through our political system — that is, unless we want to cede total control to bureaucrats. So we can’t keep politics out of school decisions as long as they are government schools. In today’s Wichita Eagle editorial writer Phillip Brownlee expressed concern for the role of politics in schools, especially surrounding the governor’s efficiency task force, concluding: “Though politics are swirling around the task force, it still may be able to come up with some good suggestions for reducing overhead without harming educational outcomes. If it does, great.” (Eagle editorial: School task force has rocky start)

I don’t think Brownlee meant to perform this public service, but his editorial is an example of why we need less government involvement in education. Our government — excuse me, public — schools are one of the most powerful ways through which civil society is destroyed. In the process, we replace the innovation and creativity of free markets and economic freedom with moribund governmental programs for our children.

As an example, take the controversy over what percent of school spending should go into the classroom. This is one of the motivating factors behind the school efficiency task force.

But consider this: Do we worry about how much the grocery store spends on administration versus other expenses? Do we quarrel over the number of assembly workers vs. managers at a manufacturing company?

Of course we don’t, at least we who don’t own these organizations. Instead, we recognize that these business firms operate in a competitive environment. That competition is a powerful force that motivates them to find the right mix of management and other expenses, or at least a good mix.

We also recognize that there are different types of grocery stores. Some offer more customer service than others. People are free to choose which type of store they like best, even on different days.

Schools in Kansas, however, face few competitive forces. There is little incentive for the public schools to find the right mix of spending, or to increase efficiency, or to offer the wide variety of choice that we have come to expect in the private sector. (It also seems that we’re failing to consider that different types of schools might work best with different mixes of classroom and other spending.)

This is what we are missing in Kansas. With greater choices available to students and parents, there will be less need for government oversight of schools and all the bickering that accompanies decisions made through the political process.

Unfortunately, we’re not moving in that direction in Kansas. Last week in Wichita, Governor Brownback had two opportunities to promote school choice in Kansas. On the Joseph Ashby radio program he was asked about school choice, but wouldn’t commit to it as a priority.

Later that day at the Wichita Pachyderm Club a similar question was asked, and again Brownback wouldn’t commit to school choice. The focus right now is efficiency and to get fourth grade reading levels up, Brownback said. He added that about 28 percent of fourth graders can’t read at basic level, which he described as a “real problem. If you can’t read, the world starts really shrinking around you.”

It’s a mystery why Governor Brownback hasn’t made school choice a priority in Kansas. Many governors are doing that and instituting other wide-reaching reforms.

Regarding Kansas schools, power is not with parents

Information and options allow parents to make the best decisions for their children regarding schools. But in Kansas, parents have little power to make good decisions for their children, relative to the other states.

The Center for Education Reform has produced the Parent Power Index, a guide so that parents can learn about the options available in their states, and how their states rank against others. Those who live in states that don’t empower parents — like Kansas, which ranks 47th — can learn what they can do to gain power.

Elements of parent power include the availability of charter schools, school choice programs, systems that advance teacher quality, transparency, and online learning.

Kansas earns its dismal ranking by excelling (in the wrong way) in several categories. Regarding charter schools, for example: “Kansas has one of the weakest charter laws in the country and the law is often considered ‘one in name only.’ Charters are not separate, independent public schools, but operate more like alternative district schools.”

On school choice, Kansas fares no better: “Kansas does not have a private school choice program. The state has a limited charter school law. Kansas enables public virtual schooling. Limited open enrollment exists, but only for interdistrict public school choice.”

Kansas has online learning opportunities. But on teacher quality, Kansas does not rate well: “Kansas’ data system has the capacity to provide evidence of teacher effectiveness, but objective evidence is not the preponderant criterion in teacher evaluations, which are not required annually for all teachers. Neither tenure decisions nor licensure advancement and renewal are connected to objective evidence of teacher effectiveness. Districts are given full authority for pay schedules in Kansas, although the state does not support performance pay or additional compensation for work experience or for working in high-need subjects or areas. Ineffective classroom performance is not a ground for dismissal and tenured teachers have multiple opportunities to appeal dismissal. Performance is not considered in layoff decisions.”

Kansas recently received a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. One of the things Kansas must do is to develop a teacher evaluation system that includes student achievement as a significant factor in the evaluation.

On transparency: “While school performance reports are easy to find, the data is old and attempts to generate fresh reports came up short. Information on charter school options also is provided in a fairly accessible directory.”

The complete ranking for Kansas is at Parent Power Index: Kansas.

Those who defend Kansas schools as already high-performing and not in need of reform ought to take note of a few things. First, Kansas is different from other states, and that difference makes Kansas scores appear artificially high when compared to other states. See Kansas school test scores should make us think.

Second, Kansas has low standards for its schools. See Despite superintendents’ claim, Kansas schools have low standards.

Then, the Kansas school spending establishment is not willing to face the facts, even on something as simple as measuring the level of spending. See Kansas school spending: the deception. Those who ask inconvenient questions face obstruction and attacks. See At Kansas Board of Education, some questions aren’t allowed, Wichita school board: critics not welcome, Wichita school board video shows why members should not be re-elected, and In Kansas, public school establishment attacks high standards.

Kansas reasonable: The education candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas school spending

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

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

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

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

Kansas student achievement

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas school accountability

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

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

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

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

Kansas school standards

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas teachers union email: who is reasonable?

Kansas progressives in both major political parties who want larger state government are promoting themselves as “reasonable.” Another email from an official of Kansas National Education Association (KNEA) asking union members to switch their voter registration in order to vote in Republican primaries provides additional insight into the true motivations of the union, and a look at who is reasonable.

The email, printed in its entirety below, is from Tony White, Director of UniServ Southeast. UniServs are regional offices that provide services to teachers union members.

In this email, White mentions students, writing “Stand up for yourself, for your profession, and Yes, for your students.” Mention of students was absent from a previous email White sent.

White also uses words that we see progressives — including progressive Republicans — commonly use: “reasonable people” and “ideologues.” The mantra these days is that the Kansas Senate is the last bastion of a reasonable approach to government, and that hard-right ideologues have occupied the House of Representatives and the governor’s mansion.

Kansans, however, ought to take a look at what “reasonable” has meant for Kansas schools, since that is purportedly the concern of White and the teachers union.

While the Kansas school establishment touts rising test scores, this improved performance is only on tests managed by that very same establishment. On the national NAEP tests that Kansas school officials don’t control, Kansas scores are unchanged or falling. Despite this, Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker says scores on Kansas tests are rising — “jumping,” in her own words. See Kansas school test scores.

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

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

We also know that when compared to other states, Kansas has low standards. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has analyzed state standards, and we can see that Kansas has standards that are below most states. The table of figures is available at Estimated NAEP scale equivalent scores for state proficiency standards, for reading and mathematics in 2009, by grade and state. An analysis of these tables by the Kansas Policy Institute shows that few states have standards below the Kansas standards. See Despite superintendents’ claim, Kansas schools have low standards.

White and his education spending establishment allies want more spending on schools, and they claim that school spending has been dramatically cut in recent years. Their focus on base state aid contains a grain of truth about school spending. But despite that figure having been cut, total spending on schools in Kansas this year is likely to set a record high. See Base state aid is wrong focus for Kansas school spending and Wichita school spending: The grain of truth.

The teachers union and school establishment are opposed to, and generally successful in opposing other reforms that would help Kansas schools, such as improving teacher quality and implementing school choice. See In Kansas, school reform not on the plate.

Kansas is falling behind other states in implementing meaningful reforms. That’s the way the teachers union likes it. Kansas students and taxpayers suffer for their benefit.

This ought to cause us to reconsider who is reasonable.

Following is the email from White:

One last time, just for the procrastinators out there (which I will admit includes Member #1 – I think she’s resisting just to mess with me). Just like you, she’ll come through.

So I’m sending this to all KNEA members in UniServ Southeast, even though many of you have told me you have your registration all squared away. You can feel quietly superior and totally prepared while I go on.

Here’s the online link to register/switch to the important Republican party: https://www.kdor.org/voterregistration/Default.aspx

THIS MUST BE DONE BY NEXT TUESDAY, JULY 17TH IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY REGISTERED AS A DEMOCRAT.

If you have a valid driver’s license, you can do it online. However, make sure it “went through” (sorry for the tech talk J).

You should get a wallet size voting card back from your county clerk, or at least that’s how it worked for me in Crawford County. It took about 10 calendar days and it shows my updated registration, including the polling place. Now I’m ready if there are any hiccups at the polls when I go to vote.

If you do not receive a confirmation, you should check with your county clerk’s office to see if the change was received. There have been some instances where the clerk had no record of the update. You don’t want that when you go to vote.

Finally, it seems my emails to you all have created a bit of a stir among the radical conservatives. They have been forwarded some of them, I guess. In turn, I have received several offensive emails lambasting me for encouraging you all to register and to vote, to have a say in the type of state in which we live and the quality of school system in which we work.

They have blathered about it and me on the internet as well and in some news articles. They are greatly outraged, I tell you.

Called me lots of names. Demanded I stop asking you to register and to vote, and that I apologize for doing so.

Ain’t a gonna happen.

Their reaction does demonstrate they are worried, worried that reasonable people are exerting their own right to vote.

Maybe they know that less than 20% of the registered voters in SEK voted in the primary 2 years ago. That’s typical.

Maybe they understand how every vote counts, and that goes double for a primary with low turnout.

Maybe they want only the ideologues like them to make these decisions that will affect all of us so profoundly.

Well, we also know those numbers, and we know the ideologues will turn out to vote 100%.

The rest is up to you. Stand up for yourself, for your profession, and Yes, for your students. There are more of us than them, if we’ll do it.

Get registered, and influence any like-minded person to do likewise. And then vote on August 7.

Want to do more? For the primary:

· Yards signs – and even highway signs if you have a good location. Let me know.

· Walking as teacher/KNEA members to leaflet. We will just go to the doors of registered Republicans and hand out campaign pieces. It’s easy and fun, and the candidates love local teachers helping out. Nothing gives them more credibility than teachers helping in their own town. Help as little or as much as you can. Let me know – we’re quickly organizing things.

· We have helped walk Erie and have Independence, Baxter Springs, and Columbus set for this Saturday. Parsons, Chanute, and the rest will soon follow.

· In Cherokee, Crawford, and Bourbon counties, Bob Marshall needs you.

· In Montgomery, Labette, and Neosho counties, it’s Dwayne Umbarger. (and Rich Proehl and Ed Bideau, too.)

Thanks for reading this far. I really wouldn’t be such a pest if it wasn’t this important. We are fighting for the future of our state and the quality of life we enjoy. So I’ll risk being annoying.

Thanks for everything you do for your students and for your colleagues. See you at the polls.

Wichita teacher labor kerfuffle illustrates the problem

A dispute over teacher working conditions in USD 259, the Wichita public school district, provides a window into the workings of the public school system and its problems. There is a way out, but it’s not happening in Kansas.

Public school teachers want to be recognized by the public as professionals. But when Wichita school district management seeks to actually manage teachers, the union intervenes, and change must be negotiated.

The issue, according to Wichita Eagle reporting, is that the school district “wants to start requiring teachers to write detailed lesson plans, file grades online every week and contact each student’s parent or guardian at least once per grading period.”

This request was deemed “insulting” by United Teachers of Wichita, the union for Wichita public school teachers.

Right away we can see some problems with public education, illustrated for all to see here in Wichita. First, why are the working conditions of Wichita schoolteachers a public matter? The answer is, of course, is that they are public employees, paid by tax dollars, and the public therefore has an interest and a right to know certain things.

This interest — and controversy — was played out in some of the comments left to the online version of this story. Two controversial issues argued about include whether teachers are paid too little (or too much), and how many hours teachers work (or not).

Both of these issues relate to professionalism. Most professional employees are paid based on performance or an agreement struck between the employee and management. That’s not the case in most public school systems, including Wichita. Here, teacher pay is based solely on two factors: longevity and education credentials earned. There is no opportunity for any teachers to earn more, no matter how they distinguish themselves. The reverse is true: the poor teachers earn the same as the outstanding. This lockstep pay scale is not characteristic of professional employees.

Regarding how much teachers actually work, I’m sure some work long hours to complete their work. But the union contract for Wichita teachers is full of language like “The ending time of the school day in each building shall be seven (7) hours and ten (10) minutes after the beginning time” and “The teacher work day will be increased by forty (40) minutes one day per week for seventeen (17) weeks of the school year for PLC.” Again, union contract language like this is not characteristic of professional employees.

But whether we call teachers “professional” or not is just a label. The real issue is that these issues are a matter for public discussion, and that they cause so much controversy and heated argument. This is characteristic of government institutions that have a monopoly or near-monopoly and are isolated from market competition.

In Kansas, the public schools have a near-monopoly on the use of public funds for education. Unless a family wants to send their children to religious schools, not many have the financial resources to send their children to private schools.

So we are left with a monolithic public school system, a system run by government. People are going to argue about how the system is run. People will resist paying for it. Some people will suffer the delusion that they can have an impact on the way the system is run, only to find out that the system protects itself very well.

In many areas of human life, market competition has found to be the force that makes things better. Market competition doesn’t mean that people have to work harder and longer. Instead it means that there is a marketplace where consumers have a choice. It also means that people are free to enter the market as suppliers, as well as consumers.

In the introduction to The Morality of Capitalism, Tom G. Palmer explains further how genuine capitalism — the system of market competition — is a system of innovation and creativity:

The term ‘capitalism’ refers not just to markets for the exchange of goods and services, which have existed since time immemorial, but to the system of innovation, wealth creation, and social change that has brought to billions of people prosperity that was unimaginable to earlier generations of human beings. Capitalism refers to a legal, social, economic, and cultural system that embraces equality of rights and ‘careers open to talent’ and that energizes decentralized innovation and processes of trial and error. … Capitalist culture celebrates the entrepreneur, the scientist, the risk-taker, the innovator, the creator. … Far from being an amoral arena for the clash of interests, as capitalism is often portrayed by those who seek to undermine or destroy it, capitalist interaction is highly structured by ethical norms and rules. Indeed, capitalism rests on a rejection of the ethics of loot and grab. … Capitalism puts human creativity to the service of humanity by respecting and encouraging entrepreneurial innovation, that elusive factor that explains the difference between the way we live now and how generation after generation after generation of our ancestors lived prior to the nineteenth century.

We don’t experience the benefit of this in Kansas and Wichita public education. Except for religious schools and a handful of private schools that few can afford, education is provided by a government monopoly isolated from the creative and entrepreneurial impetus of markets. We don’t benefit from decentralized innovation. We don’t respect and encourage entrepreneurial innovation. Government programs don’t have these features.

Paradoxically, while supporters of public education are likely to describe capitalism as an “amoral arena for the clash of interests,” we can see that the Wichita public school system is where the clash between management and workers is happening, played out in public.

Instead of the education of children being the responsibility of parents and the concern of those they choose to voluntarily associate with, we have a government program. We fight over it. We destroy civil society, turning over something so vital and important to government bureaucrats and unions.

In Kansas, schools face very little market competition. The public school establishment vigorously beats back every attempt to introduce even small amounts of choice and competition. Instead we are left to fuss over phony reform measures such as Governor Sam Brownback’s current school reform proposal, which is really just small adjustments as to how the existing system will be paid for. The governor has yet to propose any meaningful reform.

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.

U.S. public schools seen as threat to national security

The Council on Foreign Relations, described by the Wall Street Journal as “the clubhouse of America’s establishment” is now in favor of something very un-establishment: school choice. The data is so grim, writes the Journal, that the poor performance of American public schools is now a national security issue.

Some statistics from the article: “Only a third of elementary and middle-school students are competent in reading, math and science.” … “The military can’t tap the 25% of American kids who drop out of high school, and 30% of those who graduate can’t pass the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery.” … “Even excluding teacher pensions and other benefits, per-pupil spending today is more than three times what it was in 1960 (in 2008 dollars).” (School Reform’s Establishment Turn: The Council on Foreign Relations endorses choice and competition. subscription required)

The CFR reports calls for applying to education the same factors that have lead to success in other areas of human endeavor: “U.S. elementary and secondary schools are not organized to promote competition, choice, and innovation — the factors that catalyze success in other U.S. sectors.”

The CFR report is U.S. Education Reform and National Security. The overview is blunt: “The United States’ failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country’s ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role.”

In an interview with Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and co-chair of the task force that wrote the report, Klein said:

Probably the major finding that is sort of well known but not fully digested is that U.S. outcomes are essentially flat at the high school level, despite the fact the country has continued — over the last thirty to forty years — to invest significantly in K-12 public education. And while we’re making the investments and not getting the results, the rest of the globe is getting very different results.

If you [compare] the educational performance of the United States, for example, with that of China, or Finland, or Singapore, there are dramatic differences. The U.S. performance is much more akin to countries that we never could have thought would perform educationally at the level that we are. We used to have the highest percentage of high school graduates, the highest percentage of college graduates. It’s no longer so.

But perhaps the thing the report will shine a spotlight on is the national security implication. One statistic that blew members of this task force away is that three out of four kids today in America are simply ineligible for military service. It’s unbelievable. We’re drawing our national security forces from a very small segment of the population. And a lot of the problem is they simply don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to serve in the military.

The other thing we found is how non-innovative K-12 education is. K-12 education is still one teacher, twenty-eight kids, twenty-five kids, whatever, and trying to figure out the sweet spot for a class of very different and heterogeneous skills. Surely, you would think in an [education] industry that is as complex and dynamic and heavily invested in — second after health care in the United States — that you’d see dramatic innovations, and the truth is, you haven’t.

The report recommends adopting Common Core Standards, which is controversial.

A second recommendation, and one not present in Kansas to any degree, is school choice: “The second big idea is really a uniquely American approach, and it’s controversial. That is, to move toward meaningful [school] choice. We need to generate an environment that leads to innovation, and that empowers parents to really look over the next decade or so. We need to look at how we can transition from a monopoly on public school systems to one that gives parents and their children meaningful choices that stimulate innovation and differentiation.”

In Kansas, school reform not on the plate

Conventional wisdom this year is that Kansas is struggling with a plan for school reform. The reality, however, is that the state is merely considering a change in how to pay for its schools.

No actual reform of what happens within the schools is contemplated, except that schools might have more flexibility in how to spend their funds. A recent plan to spend more on schools over the next two years doesn’t count as reform, as it merely allows schools to do more of the same.

As Kansas struggles to find funding for its public schools and other functions of government, we’re losing an opportunity to examine our schools and see if they’re performing as well as they should, both financially and academically. Here are some actual reform measures not being discussed on a widespread basis.

School choice

Across the country, charter schools and school choice programs are offering choice and improved educational outcomes to families. While Kansas has charter schools, the charter school law in Kansas is one of the weakest in the nation, and virtually guarantees that public schools won’t face much meaningful competition from charters.

School choice in the form of vouchers or tax credits doesn’t exist in Kansas. As a result, Kansas public schools face very little of the competitive forces that have been found to spur public schools to improvement across the country.

School choice programs save money, too. In 2007, the 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.”

Kansas is overlooking several reforms that would increase freedom and educational opportunity and would save money at the same time.

Accountability with teeth

Recently former Florida Governor Jeb Bush explained the accountability measures that have produced great success in Florida. Measures including grading individual schools from “A” to “F,” ending social promotion, and school choice programs, which help all schools: “Choice is the catalytic converter here, accelerating the benefits of other education reforms. Almost 300,000 students opt for one of these alternatives, and research from the Manhattan Institute, Cornell and Harvard shows that Florida’s public schools have improved in the face of competition provided by the many school-choice programs.”

Teacher quality policies

Recently Sandi Jacobs of National Council for Teacher Quality spoke in Wichita and addressed Kansas policies regarding teacher quality. Our policies rank below the average for all states. More information from Jacob’s presentation is at Kansas ranks low in policies on teacher quality.

Fund balances

The Kansas Policy Institute has found that Kansas schools are sitting on fund balances of over $700 million that could be used to make it through a tough budget year.

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

Chief school spending lobbyist Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) has argued that “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 tells us that the balances in these funds are more than needed, because they’ve been growing rapidly. 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.

Focus on what works

Class size, merit pay, salary scales, unions, teacher experience and education, certification: all need to be examined to make sure that schools make decisions based on what works. We find, however, that school districts resist reforms. As a monopoly shielded from significant competition, Kansas public schools face little pressure to reform.

Consider class size, something that the education bureaucracy says is of utmost importance, and one of the primary reasons given for school bond issues. What the school spending lobby won’t realize is that class size is not important. Instead, the quality of teachers is much more important. Writes education researcher Eric Hanushek: “Much of the work that I have done has focused on teacher effectiveness. From this research I have concluded that teacher quality is the most important factor in determining how well a school will do. … Teacher quality is not captured by typically discussed characteristics of teachers such as master’s degrees, teaching experience, or even certification — things that states typically monitor. Requiring such things unrelated to student performance dilutes accountability and detracts from things that would make them more effective.”

Consider the harm of union work rules: When private sector companies are forced to layoff employees, they may use the opportunity to shed their lower-performing employees first. Government schools, governed by union contracts like the one in Wichita, can’t do this. They must dismiss the teachers with least seniority first. While this might seem like a good way to keep the best teachers, it turns out that experience is only a minor factor in teacher quality.

Test scores

Are Kansas test scores a reliable and valid measure of student achievement? The test scores that school spending advocates use — tests administered by the state of Kansas — are almost certainly misleading. The basic problem is that scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show achievement by Kansas students largely unchanged in recent years. This is at the same time that scores on tests given by the Kansas education establishment show large improvements. We need to investigate so that we understand the source of this difference. The Kansas education bureaucracy resists such efforts.

The cost of a suitable education

The issue of what an education in Kansas should cost is again being examined by courts. This should provide an opportunity to examine the cost studies used by the court. The Kansas Policy Institute has published Kansas Primer on Education Funding: Volume II Analysis of Montoy vs. State of Kansas, which provides useful criticism and perspective of the cost studies used.

Alternative remedies

Besides ordering increased spending, courts should consider alternative remedies. These might take the form of increased opportunities for parents to escape failing public schools. An example is the parent trigger. This mechanism allows parents to force radical change on a school through the petition process.

Solution for empty Wichita school buildings

As USD 259, the Wichita public school district struggles with potentially five closed school buildings to be closed, there is an easy solution at hand. It would require, however, that the school board and administration change their hostile attitude towards charter schools and school choice.

The Wichita Eagle reports that the district is considering closing five schools, and that these schools may become “a drain on the district’s already strapped budget.” (Vacant schools will challenge Wichita district, February 26, 2012.)

A natural use for these buildings is to be reused as schools, in this case charter or private schools. But neither is likely to happen.

In Kansas, charter schools must be authorized by the local school district. The Wichita school district’s hostility towards educational freedom — of which charter schools are one part — is so ingrained that it is difficult to imagine the district approving a charter school under any circumstances. This attitude is so brazen that it is unlikely anyone would spend any effort preparing a charter school proposal.

Further, as Kansas has no school choice programs like tax credit scholarships or vouchers, most parents can’t afford to send their children to private schools that might be formed to make use of these school buildings.

The Wichita school district, then, is likely to forgo a way to reuse existing school buildings in a way that would increase the opportunities for Wichita schoolchildren to get a good education. They’d rather see the buildings remain idle — and an expense to taxpayers.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Friday December 16, 2011

Kansas school finance. Reactions to Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s school finance plan are coming in. Dave Trabert, president of Kansas Policy Institute gives it a grade of “incomplete.” “It’s good to give districts more flexibility in deciding how to spend aid dollars and the formula may be easier to understand, but there is nothing in this plan to substantively address his laudable goals of raising student achievement. Excellence in Education requires laser-like focus on outcomes and those elements are missing from this plan. … Funding is important but that’s not what drives achievement. Total aid to Kansas schools increased from $3.1 billion in 1998 to $5.6 billion in 2011. Yet reading proficiency levels according to the U.S. Department of Education remain relatively unchanged at about 35%.” … Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), the teachers union, notes the good points: It anticipates no further cuts to K-12 Education funding. It allows maximum flexibility in addressing student needs by removing restrictions on spending on at-risk or bilingual students. It counts kindergartners as full time students. But, the bad, according to the union: It has a TABOR-like effect that permanently locks in school funding at the current inadequate level. TABOR refers to taxpayer bill of rights, plans that some states have to limit the rate of growth of government. … While the Brownback administration believes the plan should settle lawsuits aimed at forcing more spending on education, lawyers suing the state say “Without addressing the costs of what schools need to spend in order to get the kind of performance the 21st Century demands, it is a system doomed to failure. It doesn’t do what the Kansas Supreme Court and the Kansas Constitution requires and that is fund education based on its costs.”

No school choice for Kansas. The Brownback plan contains no mention of school choice programs of any kind, not even charter schools. The latter are possible in Kansas, but the law is stacked against their formation. School choice programs are increasing in popularity in many states, because they hold the strong possibility of better results for students and parents. Plus, as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has found in its study Education by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006, school choice programs save money: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.” Governor Brownback could have integrated a small school choice program into the school financing plan as a way to save money and provide greater freedom for students and parents. … In what the Wall Street Journal dubbed the The Year of School Choice, Republican governors across the nation have founded or expanded school choice programs. Wrote the Journal: “But choice is essential to driving reform because it erodes the union-dominated monopoly that assigns children to schools based on where they live. Unions defend the monopoly to protect jobs for their members, but education should above all serve students and the larger goal of a society in which everyone has an opportunity to prosper. This year’s choice gains are a major step forward, and they are due in large part to Republican gains in last fall’s elections combined with growing recognition by many Democrats that the unions are a reactionary force that is denying opportunity to millions. The ultimate goal should be to let the money follow the children to whatever school their parents want them to attend.” … But under governor Brownback’s leadership, this is not happening in Kansas.

Federal budget transparency. U.S. Representative Tim Huelskamp, who is in his first term representing the Kansas first district, this week expressed frustration with transparency involving the federal budget. “I appreciate the Congressman from Utah talking about transparency. The idea that just because we’re only shining some light on a particular aspect — on not on the whole process — to me that’s an argument we need more transparency on the whole process. I totally agree with that. The experience in my office in the last three days has been to make an attempt to find out what is in this Conference Committee report. It’s been three days, and at 12:37 am this morning that was posted online — 1,219 pages, not quite 11 hours ago. I’m a Member of Congress and I’m going to be expected to vote on that very quickly. There was an interesting quote in The Hill this morning. I don’t know who said it, but it quoted: ‘… [A]ppropriators are worried that the tactic could leave the omnibus text out in the public for too long, giving time for K Street lobbyists to attack it before it gets approved.’ I don’t care about the lobbyists. It’s my job. It’s a responsibility to my constituents. We need more transparency not less. We need more discussions of the tyranny of debt, not less. This type of legislation gives us that opportunity. It gives the American people more appropriately the opportunity to see what we are doing.” There is video of Huelskamp’s remarks.

Open records in Wichita. “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to A Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” That’s James Madison, framer of the First Amendment, 1822. Six of seven Wichita City Council members seem not to agree with Madison, and we have a city attorney who goes out of his way to block access to information that the public has a right to know. The City of Wichita’s attitude towards open records and government transparency will be a topic of discussion on this week’s edition of the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas. That program airs in Wichita and western Kansas at 9:00 am Sundays on KAKE channel 10, and at 5:00 am Saturdays on WIBW channel 13 in Topeka.

Cell phone ban while driving. Sometimes regulating a behavior, even though it is dangerous, makes things even worse. “A news release from the Highway Loss Data Institute summarizes the finding of a new study: “It’s illegal to text while driving in most US states. Yet a new study by researchers at the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) finds no reductions in crashes after laws take effect that ban texting by all drivers. In fact, such bans are associated with a slight increase in the frequency of insurance claims filed under collision coverage for damage to vehicles in crashes. This finding is based on comparisons of claims in 4 states before and after texting ban, compared with patterns of claims in nearby states.” More at Texting bans haven’t worked.

Myths of the Great Depression. “Historian Stephen Davies names three persistent myths about the Great Depression. Myth #1: Herbert Hoover was a laissez-faire president, and it was his lack of action that lead to an economic collapse. Davies argues that in fact, Hoover was a very interventionist president, and it was his intervening in the economy that made matters worse. Myth #2: The New Deal ended the Great Depression. Davies argues that the New Deal actually made matters worse. In other countries, the Great Depression ended much sooner and more quickly than it did in the United States. Myth #3: World War II ended the Great Depression. Davies explains that military production is not real wealth; wars destroy wealth, they do not create wealth. In fact, examination of the historical data reveals that the U.S. economy did not really start to recover until after WWII was over.” This video is from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, and many other informative videos are available.