Tag Archives: Walt Chappell

Electing Kansas legislators: Education issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harm of NCLB to be eclipsed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita school fund balances again an issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wichita, Kansas (USD 259) School Budget Recommendations

Wichita school board: critics not welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Thursday April 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Tuesday January 18, 2011

Education reformer to speak in Kansas. Next week the Kansas Policy Institute hosts education reform expert Dr. Matthew Ladner at several events in Kansas. In Wichita, he will speak at a free breakfast event on Tuesday January 25th. Information on that event and those in Topeka and Overland Park can be found at Kansas Policy Institute Upcoming Events. Ladner, of the Goldwater Institute, will speak on the topic “Good to Great — Lessons for Kansas from Florida’s education revolution.” Florida has been at the forefront of education reform in recent years, according to a study by EducationNext. Kansas, on the other hand, ranks very low in studies that look at education reform among the states. An invitation to the Wichita event is here. RSVPs are requested by January 20th.

Wichita council candidate websites spotted. This is not a comprehensive list of candidates. Instead, these are city council candidates’ websites that have been noticed. District 2, currently held by Sue Schlapp, who may not run due to term limits: Steve Harris, Paul Savage, Charlie Stevens. … District 3, currently held by Roger Smith on an interim basis: Clinton Coen, James Clendenin…. District 4, currently held by Paul Gray, who may not run due to term limits: Joshua Blick, Michael O’Donnell. … District 5, currently held by Jeff Longwell: Jeff Longwell, Lynda Tyler.

Schools’ funding claims questioned. “Much of the increase in state spending for schools since 2005 has accumulated in cash reserve funds rather than being spent in classrooms, according to an analysis of unencumbered cash reserves held by districts.” The Kansas Watchdog story by Paul Soutar continues: “Carryover cash in accessible district funds has increased by $306 million since 2005, the year the Kansas Supreme Court’s Montoy decision went into effect. Cash in these funds grew to about $743 in 2010, up $187 million since 2008. The carryover, or unencumbered cash, is money appropriated in previous years but not spent and with no claims against it for unpaid bills or other obligations. The cash accumulates in more than 30 distinct funds.” … The balances in these funds rise when money is not spent as fast as it is put in. School districts argue that they need some fund balances — and they do — but the growing balances, year after year for most districts, undermines the claims of school spending advocates.

Kansas schools rated. “Kansas elementary and secondary schools rose one spot in a new national performance ranking, but are still below the U.S. average and many other states, the publishers of Education Week reported this week. The publication’s 15th annual ‘Quality Counts’ survey of how precollegiate schools are faring across the nation, ranks Kansas’ performance 37th in the nation, up one place from last year’s assessment, but still lower than the national average.” The Kansas reporter story mentions state school board member Walt Chappell and his concern that Kansas’ state-controlled student achievement scores — which show rapidly rising performance — may not be valid or reliable: “Even so, the Education Week rankings and others like them are important, said Walt Chappell, a state board of education member who in the past has expressed skepticism about claims of educational excellence that he believes don’t square with students’ college entrance exams or the state’s double digit high school dropout rates. At the very least, ‘here is another outside observer taking another look at our schools and telling us there is room for improvement,’ Chappell said.”

Insurance costs on the rise in Kansas. From Kansas Reporter: “Health insurance premiums have gone up 5 to 7 percent in Kansas because of the federal Patient Affordable Care Act, an underwriters’ group official told lawmakers Thursday.” Mandates for increased coverage are seen as a cause.

Kansas and Wichita quick takes: Wednesday October 27, 2010

Kansas politics in National Review. Today Denis Boyles takes on Kansas politics in National Review Online, starting with well-deserved criticism of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? He also predicts that Republicans will sweep all the statewide election contests. But the real target of this article is the Kansas Supreme Court and our state’s method of judicial selection. For those wishing to rely on the Kansas Commission on Judicial Performance as a source of reliable information about judges, Boyles describes it as a “Potemkin commission” that “spends $700,000 of taxpayers’ money annually running ads in support of retention and endorsing every single judge in the state.” Boyles says the problem with Kansas will be clear to everyone after the election: It’s the Kansas Supreme Court.

Midterm blowout forecast. From The Hill: “Republicans are headed for a blowout election win that seems certain to seize more than enough seats to knock out the Democrats and take control of the House. … The deficits facing some longtime Democratic incumbents, who have spent most of their careers relatively safe from electoral peril, are striking — a reflection of just how deeply the anti-incumbent sentiment runs this election year.”

National Center for Aviation Training ceremony today. As The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman notes in an editorial today, Sedgwick County has spent $52 million on a training facility for the aviation industry. At the time, industry leaders told us this was necessary to retain aircraft jobs in Wichita. It should be noted that this expenditure has not been sufficient, as since then Cessna, Bombardier Learjet, and recently Hawker Beechcraft have each hit up the state — and in some cases local government — for corporate welfare under the threat of locating jobs elsewhere.

New Wichita schools divert attention. Two years ago the voters of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, passed a bond issue to build new schools and facilities. Today the Wichita Eagle describes a groundbreaking ceremony for two new schools. The problems with all the planning for the schools are these: First, it looks like the district is doing something to solve problems, when the path the district is taking is not likely to produce the promised results. Second, the district’s attention has been, and is now, focused on facilities, not the real problems the schools face, like an honest assessment of student results. Third, the district was in no way honest with Wichita taxpayers about the additional expense required to operate the schools after they are built. Fourth, more spending on government schools makes it even more difficult for families who want to pursue other paths for their children. Overall, a bad day for children in Wichita.

Challenges for Kansas education. Speaking of, Kansas State Voard of Education member Walt Chappell contributes an article describing some problems with education in Kansas and some recommendations for policy changes. One problem is our priorities, as mentioned in the previous section. Chappell writes: “First, we need to change our priorities. More emphasis is needed on preparing our students to earn a living and financial literacy instead of on varsity sports. Currently, more money is spent on a few players to win the Friday night football or basketball game than to teach our kids the skills they need to get a job.” The complete piece is at State of the State KS.

October surprises more difficult now. The popularity of advance voting in states like Kansas makes it more difficult to pull off an “October surprise.” This is a campaign tactic where unfavorable information about a candidate is sprung upon the public right before the election, the idea being that the accused candidate will not have time to react to the charges and voters will go to the polls on Election Day with the negative information fresh in their minds. Journalists probably won’t have time to react, either. We see examples of this technique in Kansas now with DUI charges against third district Congressional candidate Kevin Yoder. In the fourth district Raj Goyle is raising new charges against Mike Pompeo. But with perhaps as many as half the voters having already voted by the weekend before Election Day — the favorite time to launch an attack — the effectiveness of this technique is reduced. When should a campaign release the surprise charges? The good news is that with the expanded voting schedule, campaigns have more time to rebut or clarify charges, or disprove factually incorrect information. We saw this in the Republican primary for the fourth district, where last-minute charges by the Wink Hartman campaign were found to be lacking clear and convincing evidence.

Advance voting regrets. With so many Kansas voters voting far in advance of Election Day, what happens if voters regret their vote? Suppose their chosen candidate dies or withdraws from the race? (Withdrawing is more likely during primary contests.) More likely, what if there is an “October surprise” that makes you want to change your already-cast vote? Personally, I still like to vote old-school style at my precinct’s polling place on Election Day. But for those voting in advance, there’s no need to mail in your ballot far in advance. As long as it arrives by Election Day, your vote will be counted just the same.

Teacher tenure reform starts

The system of teacher tenure has suffered a blow that could spread to other parts of the country.

Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has fired 241 teachers for poor performance, are more are on notice. This is in a school system where, according to Wall Street Journal reporting, “Ms. Rhee said Friday she took over a system in 2007 where 95% of teachers were rated excellent and none terminated for poor performance. Yet, students posted dismal test scores.”

The system of teacher tenure in K through 12 education deserves examination, and if we believe that schools exist for the benefit of schoolchildren, it should be eliminated.

Defenders of tenure say it doesn’t prevent lousy teachers from being fired. Instead, tenure simply guarantees them due process rights. But the problem is that the process is so difficult for school administrators to pursue that some school districts — New York City, famously — create “rubber rooms.” These are rooms where the truly bad teachers report every workday to sit and while away the several years that their cases can take to work their way through the system. In 2007 the New York Times reported that 760 New York City schoolteachers were doing this in 12 “reassignment centers.”

(By the way, the “work hours” for the rubber rooms was 8:00 am to 2:50 pm. Teachers could leave for lunch.)

Since the rubber rooms are an embarrassment for all involved, the Times has reported that the past school year was the last for the rooms. Now, the worst teachers will perform administrative duties or be sent home.

Advocates of tenure also argue that it is necessary to protect teachers from the arbitrary decisions of school administrators. There might actually be some validity to this argument, but tenure is the wrong response to the problem.

It is said that school administrators — in a system without tenure — would practice “crony” hiring and promotion practices. They would reward their friends and family and punish their enemies or those they simply don’t like.

These things happen in a system insulated from market competition, and institutions don’t suffer when they do. In the private sector, when a manager makes staffing decisions based on cronyism — instead of hiring and retaining the best possible employees — the profitability of the company suffers. If managers’ compensation is tied to profitability, they suffer when making staffing decisions based on cronyism. Even if they don’t suffer pay-wise, these managers will not perform well on their own evaluations.

A system of market competition, however, forces each institution — schools, too — to be the best they can possibly be. When schools compete for students and funding, principals might learn to like their very best teachers, even if they don’t care for them personally.

They also might learn how to evaluate and recognize the best teachers. That’s important, as it is becoming apparent that the personal characteristics of teachers are far more important to student success than the things that schools presently use to reward teachers — credentials, additional education, and longevity.

The characteristics of teachers are also far more important than class size, which is another factor the education establishment focuses on. Eric Hanushek has estimated that students of the worst teachers will learn just one-half a year’s material in a year, while students with the best teachers will learn one and one-half year’s material in a year. This difference is far greater than the weak effect that school class size studies have found, and even those small findings are suspect.

Presently some states are considering using student test scores as a way to evaluate and reward teachers. Student test scores are viewed as an objective way to evaluate teachers, one that is removed from the subjective evaluations of school administrators who, as shown above, don’t have a very strong incentive to hire and retain the best teachers.

Any meaningful reform is strongly opposed by the teachers union and the education establishment. This makes Washington D.C. schools chancellor Rhee’s accomplishment all the more remarkable.

How did Rhee accomplish this breakthrough? Earlier reporting in the Wall Street Journal mentioned the political support of Washington’s mayor, Adrian Fenty, and the fact that the Washington schools were just terrible. Her challenge lies ahead, as the Journal noted: “Ms. Rhee’s challenge now is to use the new rules forcefully enough to drive improvements because the unions will assume they can wait her out.” The union will probably sue over these firings.

The education bureaucracy and the system is working against Rhee too: “Unfortunately, most school chancellors are careerists who don’t want to upset the unions because they are always looking for their next job. One example: Clifford Janey, whom Ms. Rhee replaced in D.C., went on to become the superintendent in Newark, N.J., whose schools may be worse than D.C.’s. Ms. Rhee, by contrast, came to her job as an outsider willing to endure the considerable abuse that the unions and their political backers threw at her.”

As seen in Kansas by the example of Kansas School Board Member Walt Chappell, if you’re not a team player, you’re going to suffer abuse from the education bureaucracy.

Giving Lousy Teachers the Boot

Michelle Rhee does the once unthinkable in Washington.
By William McGurn

Donald Trump is not the only one who knows how to get attention with the words, “You’re fired.” Michelle Rhee, chancellor for the District of Columbia schools, has just done a pretty nifty job of it herself.

On Friday, Ms. Rhee fired 241 teachers — roughly 6% of the total — mostly for scoring too low on a teacher evaluation that measures their performance against student achievement. Another 737 teachers and other school-based staff were put on notice that they had been rated “minimally effective.” Unless these people improve, they too face the boot.

The mass dismissals follow a landmark agreement Ms. Rhee negotiated with the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) at the end of June. The quid pro quo was this: Good teachers would get more money (including a 21.6% pay increase through 2012 and opportunities for merit pay). In exchange, bad teachers could be shown the door.

Continue reading at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required)

Balance Kansas budget without raising sales tax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas news digest

News from alternative media around Kansas for December 14, 2009.

EPA threatens more gov regs and pushes ‘global warming’

(Kansas Liberty) “The Environmental Protection Agency issued a ruling today in which it determined that greenhouses gasses, such as carbon dioxide, are harmful to public health. … Derrick Sontag, Americans for Prosperity-Kansas state director, said he disagreed with Jackson’s statement that business leaders had requested additional government regulation of their carbon emissions.”

Will Copenhagen global-warming fiction influence Kansas?

(Kansas Liberty) “World leaders and climate experts commenced their environmental discussion at the Copenhagen climate conference today, leaving global warming skeptics to wonder whether the recent ‘Climategate’ scandal would be acknowledged during the significant meeting.”

Cutting KNEA involvement could cut costs to schools

(Kansas Liberty) Do Kansas school spending advocates consider all sources of funding when discussing school spending? “Stephen Iliff, a member of the 2010 Commission, which studies education issues in Kansas, said that during his time as a commissioner, he has noticed that school officials, school lobbyists and the mainstream media generally only cite the amount of aid schools receive from the state, while leaving out federal and local funding sources.”

Board of Education member fights reprimand

(Kansas Reporter) “Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell, who last month was formally reprimanded by board chairwoman Janet Waugh for comments he made in a TV interview, claimed today that Waugh and other board members are trying to stifle his First Amendment rights to speak freely.”

Fiscal woes may intensify budget debate next year

(Kansas Reporter) “Recession is drilling deeper into Kansas’ state budget. And the pain is a long way from over, state executives say.”

Kansas Educators Question Reprimand and Free Speech

(Kansas Watchdog) “KSBOE member Walt Chappell questions the validity of a reprimand he received from Board Chair Janet Waugh. The reprimand chastised Chappell for speaking about education issues outside of Board meetings and not being in agreement with other board members. Chappell pointed out that other Board members who speak out but agree with the Board have not been reprimanded.”

More Questions — and Answers — on School Funding

(Kansas Watchdog) “In Sunday’s online edition of the Wichita Eagle an opinion piece by Rhonda Holman attempts to address statements by KSBOE member Walt Chappel and reporting by Kansas Policy Institute on school funding. The article barely scratched the surface.”

Sedgwick County Commission Asks Legislature for Taxpayer Protection

(Kansas Watchdog) “In a 3-2 vote the Sedgwick County Commission has asked the state Legislature for voter approval before any future property tax increases that raise the mill levy. The request is part of the county’s annual legislative platform or wish list. The platform specifically requests: ‘Tax Equity — Part 2. All local sales tax increases must be approved by voters under Kansas law. All property tax increases that raise the mill levy should also be required to receive voter approval.’”

State Sen. Julia Lynn grills SRS Secretary about contracting irregularities: ‘It just smells bad’

(Kansas Watchdog) “State Senator Julia Lynn (R-Olathe) grilled SRS Secretary Don Jordan at the second day of recent hearings on children’s issue about contracting irregularities in his agency. Lynn questioned Jordan’s decision in Oct 2008 to send an extra $712,000 to Community Living Opportunities in Lenexa, after Kansas Democratic Party Chair, Larry Gates, who was a CLO board member, acted as a “private citizen” in requesting additional funding.”

Letter From The Newsroom — Energy Efficiency

(State of the State, Kansas) “This week we look at the possibilities for making Kansas energy efficient. With the first cold blast over the last couple weeks, winter is here and heating bills will jump.”

Kelsey Brings Economic Development Plan To Wichita

(State of the State, Kansas) “Several Kansas Legislators were on hand as 4th Congressional District Candidate Dick Kelsey unveiled his economic development plan in Wichita on Tuesday.”

No Change in Kansas Uninsured Rate

(Kansas Health Institute) “New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the percentage of Kansans without health insurance remained relatively steady in 2007-2008 at 12.4 percent. However, the percentage of Kansas children without coverage increased to 9.6 percent from 7.8 percent in 2006-2007. This KHI Fact Sheet provides a summary of the most recent data on the uninsured in Kansas.”

Kansas school spending advocates: no alternative views welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At House Appropriations, Chappell presents Kansas school funding ideas

Topeka, Kansas — At today’s meeting of the Kansas House Appropriations Committee, Walt Chappell presented ideas on increasing efficiency and reducing cost in Kansas schools.

Chappell, a Democrat from Wichita, was elected to the Kansas State Board of Education last year. He has 40 years varied experience as a businessman, former science teacher, college and university faculty, administrator, and education budget director. His testimony today was presented as his own, and he traveled to Topeka to present it at his own expense.

Here is a summary of the ideas he presented to the members of the committee:

First, remove restrictions on the way that school fund balances can be used. As of July 1, Kansas schools carried a balance of $1.5 billion in various funds. About $700 million of this is in operating fund accounts, which represents an increase of 53% in four years. This money could be spent, or alternatively, the rate of contribution to the funds could be reduced. According to Chappell: “This means that the cuts which must be made to K-12 education will have minimal impact on instruction and eliminate any need to raise taxes or increase funding. It is best to use money already in the bank rather than ask for more during these tough economic times.”

Second, reduce the number of school districts. Chappell says that $300 million a year could be saved by merging the 296 Kansas school districts into about 40 districts, each with 10,000 or more students. 252 of Kansas school districts (85%) have fewer that 2,000 students. It’s not cost-effective, according to Chappell.

The larger school districts will make more efficient use of administrators, teachers, transportation, maintenance, and purchasing power. Better use of existing facilities will result.

Third, increase the productivity of K-12 teachers and college faculty. Chappell says that each K-12 teacher must be in the school building not less than eight hours per day: “A full day’s work for a full day’s pay.” Teachers should teach at least six class periods, and then remain in the building to grade papers, hold parent-teacher conferences, help students who are having problems, and attend in-service training.

One of the benefits of this will be the need to reduce in-service days, which, according to Chappell, “cost millions of dollars with questionable improvements in instruction.” This emphasis on productivity is needed, he said, because 80% of budgets goes to personnel.

Fourth, place a temporary hold for two years on the state matching funding for school bond projects. Chappell held up one of the “25%” buttons used to promote the Wichita school bond issue last year. That number refers to the portion of bond spending that the state would pay. He made the point that voters outside the Wichita school district, for example, didn’t have the chance to vote on whether they wanted to help the Wichita district build new facilities.

He also said that many of these building projects have low instructional value.

Fifth, there should be “pay to play” for K-12 varsity sports. Chappell said that three to four percent of Kansas K-12 spending goes to varsity athletics, while at the same time only one percent goes to vocational education to teach students employable skills. Which is more important? Sports boosters and parents of student athletes need to pay the extra costs of athletics.

Sixth, change the definition of an at-risk student. Currently, the definition of at-risk is based on the parents’ income. But this is an artificial measure, Chappell says, that has nothing to do with a child’s ability to learn, so this weighting in the school funding formula needs to be changed.

In total, Chappell said that these measures would save $500 million each year, and school districts would have more flexibility.

Questions from the committee members included these:

A questioner said that in all his information, Chappell didn’t mention quality of education or student achievement. Chappell responded that in larger, regional school districts, teachers would have fewer preparations, and teachers would be able to concentrate on what they do best. He also said we should concentrate on building facilities that would teach students employable skills — vocational education — rather than things like swimming pools.

A question about consolidation brought out the point that most of the talk about consolidation has been along the lines of merging two small districts, creating one still small district. This type of consolidation won’t produce the savings we need to realize. With larger consolidation, some schools might need to be closed, but savings could be on the order of $1,500 to $2,000 per student, per year, which is a great deal of money across the state. Chappell added that some school districts are so strapped for funds that they won’t be able to survive much longer on their own.

Another question asked how many certified teachers working in Kansas school districts do not teach students. Chappell replied that this is a new concept, the mentor or teacher coach, and there’s a lot of money spent on this.

Analysis

The issue of large unencumbered fund balances in Kansas school districts is starting to receive the attention it deserves, although school spending advocates are not pleased, with Kansas Watchdog reporting one Kansas state board of education member recently saying “Please, lets stop talking about $1.3 billion in unencumbered funds.” (That’s last year’s number, as this year it has grown to $1.5 billion.) It’s uncontested, however, that these fund balances are growing, which is evidence that schools have been collecting more money than they have been spending. These balances are not spread uniformly across school districts, however. More information about this can be found at Extra money in Kansas school funds could help with budget.

School consolidation in Kansas is often portrayed as an issue affecting primarily sparsely-populated areas in western Kansas, where consolidation may mean that students would have to travel long distances to a reduced number of schools. Speaking with Chappell afterwards, I learned that Ellis county has seven school districts. There’s no good reason, he said, why these districts can’t merge.

Chappell’s idea that teachers should spend eight hours in the school building was met with resistance from two committee members in their questions. Often the debate on school funding is cast by school spending advocates as a war against teachers. Chappell wants to make better use of labor and school facility resources so that more time can be spent on instruction.

A link to Chappell’s testimony is Kansas School Testimony by Walt Chappell 2009-11-23.

Kansas open records examined

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

The spirit is willing but the law is weak

Paul Soutar, Flint Hills Center for Public Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxpayer Frustrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of data, oversight raises questions on Kansas school spending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dissent Discouraged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School superintendents also made their case for increased funding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legislature responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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