Tag Archives: Wichita and Kansas schools

Wichita teacher contract: For union members only?

United Teachers of Wichita logoIn a pitch to increase membership, United Teachers of Wichita promotes an exclusive benefit: “Only UTW members receive a copy of the Teachers Employment Agreement (contract).”

I don’t know why the Wichita teachers union would promote the contract as an exclusive benefit. It is a public document. You may read it here.

Wichita school district checkbook updated

Data now available through August 2015.

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, makes its monthly checkbook register available. I’ve gathered the monthly spreadsheets made the consolidated available for analysis through Tableau Public.

The workbook (click here to open it in a new window) has a number of tabs, each showing the same data organized and summarized in a different way.

There are some caveats. First, not all school district spending is in this database. For each year, the total of the checks is in the neighborhood of $350 million, while the total spending for USD 259 is over $600 million. So there’s spending that isn’t included in this checkbook data.

Second, there are suppliers such as “Commerce Bank Visa BusinessCard.” Payments made to this supplier are over $7 million per year. These payments from the district’s checkbook undoubtedly pay a credit card bill, and this alone doesn’t let us know what the $7 million was spent on.

wichita-school-checkbook-data-quality-exampleThere are some data quality issues, as seen nearby.

USD 259 supplies this advice with this data: “The information you find may cause you to ask more questions. If so, the person to contact is Wichita Public School’s Controller, Barbara Phillips. She can be reached at (316) 973-4628, or at bphillips@usd259.net.”

Using the Wichita school district visualization
Using the Wichita school district visualization

Where are our documents?

Government promotes and promises transparency, but finds it difficult to actually provide.

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV, I give some examples of how little information government actually shares with us, despite its proclamations. Click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Following, the script for this video excerpt.

During the campaign for the one cent per dollar Wichita city sales tax last year, a city document promised this if the tax passed: “The process will be transparent, with reports posted online outlining expenditures and expected outcomes.” The “Yes Wichita” campaign promised “Reports will be measured and reported publicly.”

These are good ideas. The city should implement them even though the sales tax did not pass. We were promised a website if the tax passed. If it’s good for citizens to have this type of information if the sales tax had passed, it’s good for them to know in any circumstance.

Why is this information not available? Is the city’s communications staff overwhelmed and have no time to provide this type of information? During the sales tax campaign Wichita city staff had time to prepare news releases with titles like “City to Compete in Chili Cook-off” and “Jerry Seinfeld Returns to Century II.”

Wichita Facebook page example 2015-09-14 aSince then the city has hired additional communications staff, adding a Strategic Communications Director in March. Now, while the city’s Facebook page has some useful information, there is also time to promote Barry the Bison playing golf.

Now Wichitans have to wonder: Was transparency promised only to get people to vote for the sales tax? Or is it a governing principle of our city? I think I know the answer.

Here’s another example. The Wichita transit system is a matter of interest right now. Funding for the system has been a problem for some years, and money for the bus system was part of the sales tax last year that Wichita voters rejected. So what is the city and the transit system doing to make information available? The answer is: not much. Wichita Transit Advisory BoardSome of the fundamental documents of government agencies are agendas, agenda reports, and minutes of meetings. And there is such a thing as the Wichita transit advisory board. But good luck finding agendas and minutes for this board. They do not exist. Well, I’m sure they exist somewhere. But they’re not available on the city’s website, or on the transit system’s’ own website. I’m sure that if you call or write someone will send these documents to you. But that takes time, both for citizens and government workers.

It is not difficult to do this, making documents available. There are many city agencies that make documents available, like the city council and airport advisory board. Earlier this year a local activist mentioned the lack of agendas and minutes for the transit board, bemoaning that there was no part-time web person to post the documents. Well, you don’t need a web person to do it. It is so simple that anyone can do it for free.

Here’s an example. This summer as Sedgwick County was preparing and debating its budget, I wanted to do some research on past budgets. But on the county’s website, the only budgets available were for this year and last year. There was nothing else.

11-Sedgwick County FinancialsSo I asked for budgets and other financial documents. I received them on CD. Then I created a shared folder using Google Drive and uploaded the documents. Now, these documents are available to the world. They can be found using a Google search. Oh, and here’s something a little ironic. These old budgets had been on the Sedgwick County website at one time. Someone made the decision to remove them.

Creating this depository of budget documents cost nothing except a little bit of time. Well, if you have a lot of data to share, you might have to pay Google a little, like ten dollars per month for each agency or person. But it is so simple that there is no excuse for the failure of agencies like Wichita Transit to make documents like agendas and minutes available. You don’t need specialized personnel to do this work. All you need is the will and desire to make the documents available.

Here’s another example of how simple it can be to achieve transparency. These days live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace. Commonplace, that is, except for the Wichita public schools. If you want to see a meeting of the Wichita school board, you must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV. There’s a simple and low-cost way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

Wichita public schools  YouTubeThe Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

Earlier this year I asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t want to pay cable television bills? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

There are two elements of irony here, if that is the correct term. One is that earlier this year the Wichita school district considered hiring a marketing firm to “gauge its reputation and suggest new branding strategies.” Here’s an idea: Act as though you care about people being able to view the district’s board meetings.

Second: In August the Wichita school district raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000. That is quite a large increase. That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. As I’ve just told you, it’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible. The board will raise your taxes, and at the same time keep it difficult for you to see them do it.

Just for the sake of completeness, let’s not let the state of Kansas off the hook. Currently, the proceedings of the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives are not available on video. The audio is broadcast on the internet, but it’s live only. No archiving. You must listen live, or figure out some way to record it on your own.

But for eight dollars per month the legislature could make its audio proceedings available to listen to at any time. For eight dollars per month at least one podcast hosting company offers an unlimited plan. Unlimited storage, and unlimited bandwidth. That is just what is needed. And since the audio of the proceedings of the House and Senate is broadcast on the internet, it must pass through a computer somewhere. That computer could also be recording the audio. Once recorded, the process of uploading the audio to the podcast host is a trivial procedure.

But neither Kansas legislative chamber records their proceedings, according to the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House. I asked. Recordings of sessions are not available because they are not made. It would be simple to record audio of the Kansas House and Senate and make it available for anyone to listen to at any time. It is almost without cost. It would have great benefit.

Oh, and I can’t forget the federal government. In January I requested a document from the United States Department of Energy. I had several conversations and emails with a records clerk. We came to agreement as to what I would receive, or at least what I am requesting to receive. But I’ve received nothing so far. I don’t know if the document will be made available to me at no charge, or will I have to pay thousands of dollars. The Department of Energy is working on my request, they say. Our congressman Mike Pompeo and his office have intervened on my half. But after nine months: nothing.

All these levels of government — city, county, school district, state, and federal — say they value open records and transparency. But let me ask you: Do you think they really mean it?

WichitaLiberty.TV: Lack of information sharing by government, community improvement districts, and the last episode of “Love Gov”

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Do our governmental agencies really want to share data and documents with us? Community Improvement Districts and homeowners compared. And, the last episode of “Love Gov” from the Independent Institute. View below, or click here to view in high definition at YouTube. Episode 95, broadcast September 20, 2015.

Kansas Center for Economic Growth and the truth

Why can’t Kansas public school spending advocates — especially a former Kansas state budget director — tell the truth about schools and spending, wonders Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

Kansas Center for Economic Growth abuses the truth on school funding … again

Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute

Duane Goossen, former Kansas state budget director
Duane Goossen, former Kansas state budget director
The Kansas Center for Economic Growth and Duane Goossen steadfastly refuse to publicly debate school finance and state budget issues with us, as their work is so easily shown to be false, misleading and otherwise distorted (see here, here, here, and here for examples). Mr. Goossen’s most recent piece is another fine example of how they abuse the truth.

He has a table called State Aid and Enrollment that is sourced to page 60 of Kansas July Comparison Report, but much of the information in his table does not appear on page 60. The total amount of $4.059 billion is there and two of the smaller items but not the rest. A few items — KPERS payments, Local Option Budget Aid and Capital Outlay Aid — are close to what we found in other documents but not the $2.639 billion he calls General Classroom Aid. And you can’t find that anywhere because there is no such thing as “General Classroom Aid.

KCEG and other “just spend more” proponents often make reference to “classroom aid” in ways to make it appear that the Legislature is not providing enough “classroom aid” but here’s the dirty little secret you (and especially teachers) aren’t supposed to know: only local school boards and superintendents decide how much money is spent on instruction. The Kansas State Department of Education has an official definition of “Instruction” spending which is often used interchangeably with “classroom” but there is no official aid classification for “classroom.” Mr. Goossen and friends are just making it up for political purposes.

Under both the old school formula and the temporary block grant system, districts get several different types of aid but they alone decide how much of the multiple discretionary amounts received are used for Instruction, Administration, Student Support, Maintenance and other cost centers. Even Capital Outlay Aid (contrary to Goossen’s implication) can used for Instruction purposes (and is) as set forth in the KSDE Accounting Manual.

Here are a few more examples of the truth being tortured by Mr. Goossen:

  • “The Kansas Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to increase [equalization] aid …” Not true. The Supreme Court said the legislature could increase equalization funding or they could write a new equalization formula and not spend more money. Legislators chose to spend $109 million more. Even the District Court, which didn’t get much right about Gannon, acknowledged this point.
  • State Special Education Aid is shown as a decline of $6 million but it is really an increase of $46 million.  The original posting of the July Comparison Report didn’t include $52 million in Federal ARRA pass through but a former state budget director should know that the total was more than the amount listed for state aid. He also understated the increase in state aid by another $53 million for Federal ARRA money included in General State Aid.
  • KPERS is included in the amounts listed under block grants and while it has gone up, he says “… school districts must still pay the bill.”  That’s true, but some of that money goes for KPERS benefits of current employees, and local school boards chose to increase employment more than 8% over the last ten years while enrollment grew by just 4%. That forces money to be diverted from regular aid to pay the higher KPERS cost, which also happens when school boards choose to have district employees perform functions that could be done in the private sector.
  • Capital Improvement Aid helps some districts “… with bond payments for buildings but [does] nothing to cover enrollment increases.” That’s true, but again, Goossen fails to mention that district choices to construct new buildings … sometimes larger or sooner than needed … diverts money that could otherwise be used for general aid.
  • “State aid for classrooms has actually gone down…” That is a false statement because there is no such thing as “state aid for classrooms” but actual Instruction spending increased by $214 million or 7.3% between 2011 and 2014 even without counting a dollar of KPERS. Of course, Instruction spending could have gone up even more if districts had chosen to direct some of the increased spending on other operating areas to Instruction, chosen to operate other areas more efficiently and spent the savings on Instruction or used some of their unused aid from prior years instead of holding it in cash reserves.

Goossen says the block grant system is “not a recipe for creating world-class schools” as though that is some sort of revelation. The block grant system is only a temporary funding mechanism put in place to allow time to build a new student-focused funding system, replacing a dysfunctional, institution-focused system that most certainly was not a recipe for creating world-class schools.

Here’s what the old system produced after the injection of nearly $2 billion over the last ten years:

  • Only 32% of the 2015 graduating class who took the ACT test are considered college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science. ACT test scores have barely changed.
  • Only 38% of 4th grade students are Proficient in Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test that the Kansas Department of Education declared to be valid and reliable in a November 1, 2011 press release.
  • Low Income 4th graders are almost 2 years’ worth of learning behind others in Math (NAEP).
  • Only 24% of Low Income 8th graders are Proficient in Math (NAEP) and at the current pace, it will take 240 years for them to catch up to other students, only 54% of whom were Proficient on the last exam.
  • 27% of students who graduated from Kansas high schools in 2013 and attended university in Kansas signed up for remedial training (Kansas Board of Regents); no data is available on students who went out of state or attended a private college.

It will always cost a lot of money to fund public education but it’s how the money is spent that makes a difference — not how much. For example, Instruction spending accounts for just 55% of total education spending; $2 billion and ten years ago it was 54%. Here’s another discouraging fact: enrollment increased by 4% over the last ten years, while classroom teacher employment increased by 5% and non-teacher employment increased by 10%.

Outcomes apparently don’t really matter to KCEG and others (including many school districts and their taxpayer-paid lawyers) who continue to say there was nothing wrong with the old system … it just needed more money! Just look at what happened when more money was poured into the system.

Scores barely changed while per-pupil spending jumped from $6,985 per pupil to an estimated $13,343 last year, which is $3,223 more per-pupil than if funding had been increased for inflation since 1998. Reading proficiency remains below 40% and Math Proficiency is still less than 50%.

This is not an indictment of the many good people working hard in schools but an indictment of the old funding system. It is no one’s fault that achievement is unacceptable but it is everyone’s responsibility to acknowledge that fact and work toward a funding mechanism that puts students and outcomes first and uses efficiency savings to drive more resources to instruction and increase pay for effective teachers.

Kansas schools shortchanged by accounting systems

Kansas schools could receive $21 million annually in federal funds if the state had adequate information systems in place.

One of the nuggets buried in a policy brief released last year by Kansas Policy Institute is that the state is not capturing all federal funds to which it is entitled. That is, would be able to capture if the state had adequate information systems in place. Here’s a section of the policy brief:

Capture federal reimbursement of K-12 KPERS costs

States are entitled to be reimbursed by the federal government for the pension costs of school employees engaged in the delivery of federally-funded services, such as Special Education and Food Service. Kansas, however, foregoes federal reimbursement because many school districts’ payroll systems lack the ability to properly capture the necessary information. (Estimates are not permitted; the information must flow through payroll systems.) The State should require that school districts utilize a single state-provided or outsourced payroll system to capture annual federal reimbursement of $21 million.

Here is a sum of money that Kansas schools could receive if only Kansas had the necessary information systems infrastructure in place. A side benefit would likely be better management of school systems’ payroll if such a system was in place.

Is $21 million a significant sum when the state spends several billions on schools each year? The Kansas school spending establishment contends that a tax credit scholarship that might divert $10 million from the state to private schools is something that schools can’t afford. But here’s an example of twice that amount being available if Kansas school leadership had the will to obtain it.

The Kansas Policy Institute policy brief “A Five-Year Budget Plan for the State of Kansas: How to balance the budget and have healthy ending balances without tax increases or service reductions” is just ten pages in length. It may be downloaded from KPI here or alternatively from Scribd here (may work better on mobile devices). A press release from KPI announcing the policy brief is at 5 Year Budget Plan Outlines Path To Protect Essential Services and Tax Refom.

Kansas teachers earn pension credit while working for union

An audit finds that a handful of Kansas teachers have accumulated KPERS service credits while working for teachers unions.

Should Kansas schoolteachers who take time off to work for teachers unions accumulate state pension benefits credits at the same time? An audit from Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit finds this has been happening. The audit is titled “KPERS: Evaluating Controls to Detect and Prevent Fraud and Abuse.” The full audit report is here, and highlights are here.

KPERS audit imageIn summary, the audit found this: There were teachers who weren’t teaching, but who were working for an “education association.” Each school district reported the teachers as still working for the school district. Therefore, the non-teachers accumulated pension credits that will increase their benefits after retirement.

The report notes that “KNEA and its local affiliates are advocacy organizations for educators and are not KPERS-covered employers.” (In case you didn’t know, the “education associations” mentioned above are teachers unions.) It also states this practice has been going on for many years.

The report observes: “Second, if that [giving non-school district employees KPERS credit] were happening, the state (rather than the schools) would bear the cost of the additional employer contributions. That is because the state has historically paid the school districts’ share of the KPERS obligation.” This hints at the source of the problem: Someone else was paying. School districts don’t pay for KPERS. Instead, the state does. That, of course, means the state’s taxpayers pay. Recent reforms in the way KPERS is treated may help change this.

Having raised taxes, could you give us a little access?

The Wichita public school district has raised taxes substantially, but it’s still difficult to view the board meetings. Could we work out a deal?

In August the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, raised property taxes. The mill levy will rise by 2.86, an increase of about five percent from its present level. The projected cost is an additional $33 per year for a home worth $100.000.

That’s bad. What’s also bad is the district’s lack of respect for taxpayers. It’s difficult to view a meeting of the school board, which is a sign that the district prefers to operate in the shadows as much as possible.

If you — a taxpayer to USD 259, and whose taxes you must pay to the school district have just been raised by five percent — would like to watch a meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, your options are few. You can attend the meetings in person. Or, if you subscribe to certain cable television systems, you can view delayed repeats of the meetings. But that’s it.

Live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace, except for the Wichita public schools. Citizens must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV.

There’s a simple way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploaded video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

Sometimes citizens have taken it upon themselves to post Wichita school board video on YouTube so that citizens and taxpayers may view meetings. Click for an example.
Sometimes citizens have taken it upon themselves to post Wichita school board video on YouTube so that citizens and taxpayers may view meetings. Click for an example.
The Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

Earlier this year I asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is okay. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings shown live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the broadcast schedule after a week? What if you don’t have Cox or AT*T U-verse? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

Throw the taxpayers a bone, please.

Kansas schools ask to fund extraordinary needs

Asking taxpayer-funded entities whether they are operating efficiently is a perfectly legitimate question that, frankly, should be the starting point of every budget discussion. That some find it offensive is indication that the issue should be much more aggressively pursued across government, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

Extraordinary needs … or wants?

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute.

Thirty-eight school districts have applied for additional state aid from the Extraordinary Needs fund based on increased enrollment, reduced property values, loss of state aid (just Hutchinson) and the reactivation of two refugee resettlement agencies in Wichita by the U.S. Office for Refugee Resettlement. The State Finance Council will decide whether — or the extent to which — each case merits additional funding from state taxpayers.

Several members of the Finance Council asked the applicants to provide information about steps taken to make their district operate more efficiently, to which some school districts, legislators and media responded with various forms of criticism. Asking taxpayer-funded entities whether they are operating efficiently is a perfectly legitimate question that, frankly, should be the starting point of every budget discussion; that some find it offensive is indication that the issue should be much more aggressively pursued across government. 

Kansas Policy Institute gathered the following data to help citizens make their own determinations, and even more information is available in our 2015 Public Education Fact Book. We requested a copy of each applicant’s Budget at a Glance for the current year from those who didn’t already have it posted to their web site in order to compare their current year budget with actual spending from prior years. We were only able to collect data on 21 of the 38 districts; remarkably, 8 applicants said their budget wasn’t finalized so the data wasn’t available. Seven applicants had the data but five of them would not provide it and two said they couldn’t provide it because those with access were away from the district. We were unable to get a response from the other two.

Some interesting information is found in the data shared by the 21 applicants, including:

  • 17 districts are budgeting more than an inflationary increase
  • 9 districts are budgeting more than a 10% increase
  • 10 districts plan to increase Administration more than Instruction.

Complete information on the applicants that provided information (dollar amounts by category including Capital, Debt Service and Total) can be downloaded here. The spreadsheet also shows the amounts each district received in block grant-equivalent funding for FY 2014 and the amounts for FY 2015 through FY 2017 as calculated by the Department of Education.

Kansas City’s 57% increase in Administration amounts to $15.7 million, which is ironically about the same amount that applicants are collectively requesting in Extraordinary Needs funding. A Legislative Post Audit efficiency study conducted in 2013 found that Kansas City was paying well above market for many positions and it appears that that may still be true.

The adjacent table is a sampling from the district’s payroll listing for the 2015 school year obtained through an Open Records request. Work of this nature could be outsourced at much better prices, with the savings made available for Instruction. 

Kansas City may be somewhat of an extreme example but it is very common for districts to have work performed by district employees that could be more efficiently outsourced. This is just one example of valid questions that should be asked of districts that are requesting additional aid. 

Allocation of resources to teaching and non-teaching positions would be another valid line of inquiry. Classroom teacher employment over the last ten years has outpaced enrollment in many cases and non-teacher employment has grown even faster. This is not to say that the relationship should be the same in every case, as there are a number of legitimate reasons for some degree of variance.  But the raw data — available here — allows for additional benchmarking that indicates opportunities more efficient staffing levels.

It would also be pertinent to ask applicants whether they provide lucrative payouts to employees who terminate or retire. The Blue Valley superintendent received a one-time payment for deferred compensation of $328,591 last year; the cost of that alone is significant but it could also dramatically increase his pension .. for life. The Shawnee Mission Assistant Superintendent collected $132,614 for unused sick leave and vacation upon retirement and could also collect additional pension as a result. Kansas City told us that the position of Chief Human Resources Officer was eliminated but his contract had to be paid out, which accounts for the large increase last year. 

Local school boards make these decisions to provide lucrative payouts but taxpayers all across Kansas pick up part of the tab, as there is no separation between what is paid with state and local tax dollars on items of this nature.

School districts may have made some spending adjustments but they are still organized and operating rather inefficiently according to Legislative Post Audit and other information. It would be appropriate for any grant of extraordinary aid to be conditional upon a commitment to implement substantive measures to implement specific operating efficiencies, including outsourcing to regional service centers and the private sector as appropriate.

Kansas school standards found lower than in most states

A second study finds that Kansas uses low standards for evaluating the performance of students in its public schools.

What is the relative strength of weakness of the standards your state uses to evaluate students? A new study provides answers to this question. The report is Why Proficiency Matters. It is a project of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

This study is important because the most widely-reported source of data about student achievement is a state’s own assessment tests. But there are problems, as explained in the report:

A proficiency cut score is an actual number (score) on an assessment that draws the line determining where a student is proficient. States use different tests and set different proficiency cut scores to determine the proficiency level for knowledge and skill mastery. When proficiency cut scores are set too low, it conveys a false sense of student achievement.

Each state has its own tests, and each state sets the bar for what is considered “proficient,” as well as for other descriptive measures such as “basic.” It’s not surprising that states vary in the rigor of their standards:

The difference between NAEP and individual states’ proficiency expectations are wide and varied. Therefore, state-reported proficiency is not equivalent to proficiency on NAEP. This is referred to as the “proficiency gap”. States with large proficiency gaps are setting the bar too low for the proficiency cut score, leading parents and teachers to believe students are performing better than they actually are.

This study looks at the results students on tests in each state and compares them to a national standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). By doing so, the study evaluates the strength or rigor of the standards used by each state. This does not judge the actual performance of the student. Rather, it assesses the decisions made by the state’s school administration as to what standards they will hold students.

This is not the only effort to assess state standards. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, also performs a similar analysis. See Kansas school standards evaluated.

Results for Kansas

The results of the analysis show that Kansas holds students to low standards of achievement. Kansas says students are “proficient” at a very low level of accomplishment, relative to other states. This is consistent with the separate analysis performed by National Center for Education Statistics.

These are the findings for Kansas:

Grade 4 reading: Kansas standards are ranked 39 out of 50 states.
Grade 8 reading: 45 of 50 states.
Grade 4 math: 36 of 50 states.
Grade 8 math: 36 of 50 states.

Kansas school funding growing faster than inflation

Kansas school funding has been growing much faster inflation and enrollment, but for some, it will never be enough, and they will continue to use taxpayer money to press their monetary demands, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

Even by KASB standards, school operating spending is $3.9 billion ahead of inflation

By Dave Trabert

A recent blog post by the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) Associate Executive Director Mark Tallman says “Total school district funding is, in fact, at an all-time high, expected to top $6.1 billion this year” but “… the part of school funding available for day-to-day operating costs is not keeping up with inflation and enrollment.” There are several misleading aspects to his statement and the data does not support the intended message, but let’s first give credit for the courage to contradict education officials who say funding has been cut. Bravo!

KASB’s definition of operating costs does not comport with the official definition used by the Kansas Department of Education or the U.S. Department of Education1, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s correct. Let’s also assume that their definition of current operating funding represents the amount needed to efficiently operate schools and achieve the required outcomes, even though the facts refute any such claim.

By increasing the KASB-defined operating spending for inflation (the calculation for 2006 is $6,928 times (191.41 ÷ 185.14) = $7,162), we find that schools received a lot more money each year than if KASB’s 2005 amount had been increased each year for inflation. The margin of difference is getting closer over the next two years (if one doesn’t count all of the funding), but funding will have exceeded inflation by almost $3.9 billion since 2005.

KASB uses a different methodology in their inflation analysis. They show prior years’ spending in 2014 inflation-adjusted (constant) dollars; i.e., $X spending in 2014 has the same buying power as $Y in prior years. That methodology is common for restating buying power but it is irrelevant to the question of whether schools are or have been adequately funded.

The Kansas Constitution says the legislature must make suitable provision for the finance of public education; it does not say that schools must be given whatever they want to spend or that efficient use of taxpayer money cannot be taken into account. The honest truth is that no one knows what schools need to achieve the necessary outcomes while making efficient use of taxpayer money, because no such analysis has ever been undertaken in Kansas. We do know, however, that every Legislative Post Audit has found schools to be operating inefficiently and school superintendents openly acknowledge that they choose to spend more than is necessary in many circumstances. We also know that school districts haven’t even spent all of the money they’ve received over the last ten years, as about $400 million has been used to increase operating cash reserves.

There may be ways to demonstrate that today’s funding has less buying power than a particular point in time but that doesn’t mean that each year’s funding didn’t keep up with inflation and enrollment — as shown above, per-pupil funding as defined by KASB was $3.9 billion more than an inflationary increase.

The gap is even greater for total funding, which would have been $6 billion less over the last ten years if per-pupil funding for the 2005 school year had been increased each year for inflation. School districts received large funding increases beginning in 2006 from a Supreme Court Montoy ruling based on a cost study that has since been abandoned by the Supreme Court in Gannon.

The Shawnee County District Court may believe that schools are not adequately funded, but they ignored the Kansas Supreme Court in arriving at what amounts to little more than a political perspective. School funding has been growing much faster inflation and enrollment, but for some, it will never be enough … and they will continue to use taxpayer money to fund KASB justifications (and attorneys) for their monetary demands.


1KSDE and the U.S. Department of Education say operating expenditures “…do not include equipment (700 object codes), Capital Outlay or Bond & Interest. [700 object codes include expenditures for acquiring fixed assets, including land or existing buildings; improvements of grounds; initial equipment; additional equipment; and replacement of equipment.]”  The KASB definition also excludes Food Service and employee retirement costs but they don’t disclose that their definition is not the official definition and it also does not comport with the Kansas Supreme Court, which says all funding sources, including retirement costs, should be considered as part of adequate funding.

Sedgwick County WATC funding trajectory following manager’s recommendations

Sedgwick County taxpayers have been generous with funding for Wichita Area Technical College, and the former county manager has recommended reducing its funding.

During the July 16, 2014 meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission, county manager Bill Buchanan presented the recommended budget for 2015. It included a cut in funding for Wichita Area Technical College in the amount of $150,000. In response to a question, Buchanan told the commissioners:

“The new president has been assertive and aggressive in trying to deal with their financial issues. They have, he has turned that financial, that institution around financially. They are in pretty healthy shape. They have a fund balance that’s relatively strong, and it’s in my opinion that our subsidy, although it was critical in the beginning, is less critical in their operations now, and perhaps it would be time for us, when we face our own fiscal issues, to reduce their funding so we can address some of ours.”

Under the leadership of Chair Dave Unruh, this reduction in funding was approved.

At the January 7, 2015 meeting of the commission, again under the leadership of Unruh, the commission heard an off-agenda item to restore $50,000 of the funding for 2015, making the cut $100,000. That item passed. Being an off-agenda item, there is little or no public notice. Commissioner Karl Peterjohn noted this in his remarks: “I frankly would feel much more comfortable if we postponed this issue until we could get it published in the paper and have at least whatever public attention that that would generate provided, as opposed to taking another Off Agenda item that’s going to increase county spending.”

In support of Peterjohn’s motion to delay the decision for a week, Commissioner Richard Ranzau expressed concern over the lack of financial information made available to commissioners. He also repeated the manager’s recommendation that WATC needs less county funding: “Well, I’d like to have more financial information. It’s my understanding that since the state has increased funding for Vocational Ed, they’re doing very well, their reserves increased significantly, and that’s why, I mean, I was told the reason we could reduce it $150,000 was because they were doing so well. I support what they’re doing out there, but if they’ve had an influx of money from the state, a result of Vocational Ed legislation then I think it’s appropriate to adjust our spending, and I’m not prepared to increase it by $50,000 without more financial information, and that’s why I support Commissioner Peterjohn’s motion to postpone this a week so we can get more information and make a more educated decision on this. There is really no reason for hurry through this in my estimation.”

In summary, the Sedgwick County manager recommended that commissioners reduce funding to WATC, as its need for county funding has declined. Under commission chair Unruh, the commission did so, in the net amount of $100,000. The same amount is proposed for cuts this year. In light of this, the criticism of WATC beneficiaries like Spirit Aerosystems is unfounded.

By the way, the commission has been criticized for considering off-agenda items since Ranzau became chair in January, with the Wichita Eagle editorial board describing one off-agenda vote as “abrupt.” In another op-ed, Rhonda Holman complained that “The move came in an off-agenda item, with little opportunity for GWEDC and the business community to argue against it.”

Whether off-agenda items are good or bad public policy seems to depend on the whim of the Eagle editorial board.

Public radio ignores facts, pushes rhetoric on Kansas school funding

A Kansas radio news reporter seems not to care about reporting facts about Kansas school spending. Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute reports.

Public radio ignores facts, pushes rhetoric on school funding

By Dave Trabert

The latest attempt to undermine Kansas tax reform comes from KCUR-FM and National Public Radio: “Huge income tax cuts have led to … shrinking classroom budgets for public schools.” That statement might make a captivating movie ad but the film would be classified as fiction.

The Kansas Department of Education says school funding last declined by 0.045% in the 2011 school year and has increased every year since. To put that tiny reduction in perspective, it’s the equivalent of cutting spending from $1,000.00 to $999.55. Income tax cuts hadn’t even been proposed at that point and didn’t go into effect for another eighteen months. Tax reform had nothing to do with the 2011 reduction in school funding, but why let facts get in the way of a popular tale.

The final numbers aren’t in yet, but funding for the 2015 school year just ended is estimated at about $6.1 billion and more than $13,000 per student. That would be the fourth consecutive record for total funding and the third consecutive record for per-student funding, using data from the Kansas Department of Education and the Kansas Division of the Budget.

Why do KCUR and NPR say school budgets are “slashed” and “shrinking” given this data? Because school officials say so. Seriously. No data was cited — just statements made by school officials.

The first story on KCUR-FM ran on July 2 and included this false statement: “The Legislature has cut classroom funding.” First of all, the Legislature does not set classroom funding and there is no official definition of ‘classroom funding;’ the amount that goes to Instruction (defined by the Department of Education) is determined by each local school board. On average, school districts spend about 55 cents of every education dollar on Instruction — and that ratio has remained about the same since 2005 even though total funding increased by nearly $2 billion.

Secondly, the Legislature increased funding. Administrators may not be getting as much funding as they want (in government parlance that is a “cut”) but KSDE data shows block grant funding increased last year by $142.2 million without counting KPERS and increased another $4.5 million this year. (The spreadsheets are no longer on the KSDE site but we have them for anyone interested.)

I shared this information with KCUR reporter Sam Zeff but the data apparently didn’t matter to him. He said KSDE Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis told the court that schools were getting less money and superintendents say they are getting less money, so that’s all the proof he needed. But school officials’ claims are based on getting less money than they want or feel they are entitled to receive … school officials are not saying that they are getting less money than they actually received in the previous year, but that is the message they want to send.

For example, USD 259 said the block grants cut their funding by $4.8 million last year but the district’s chief financial officer said spending was expected to increase by $87 million, or 14 percent. Only government could call that a “cut.” (See here for details.)

The reporter was even given an email from Dale Dennis (also documented in a KPI Blog post), confirming that school funding increased last year.

Mr. Zeff agreed to get together and look at the KSDE data but that meeting never occurred. Two days later, another version of the story ran on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” And just to make sure listeners got the message, there were four false references to school funding “shrinking” or being “slashed.” That story also falsely said the Kansas Legislature “…stripped teachers of tenure.” No such thing occurred. The Legislature merely said ‘due process’ procedures associated with efforts to remove a teacher would be determined by individual school districts rather than be mandated by state law. If any districts actually eliminated due process, it must be a well-kept secret; we can’t find any media stories citing elimination of due process and inquiries to various education organizations produced no results in that regard.

There was another breach of sound journalistic principles in both stories — no alternate views were included. Both stories dealt with opinions on the perceived ramifications of political actions but only one viewpoint was presented.

Reporters should be able to rely on school officials to make clear, factual statements but that still is no substitute for actual examination of hard data and the inclusion of multiple viewpoints in these plainly political stories.

Wichita schools could increase engagement at no cost

The Wichita public school district could boost its engagement with citizens with a simple step that would add no cost.

If you’d like to watch a meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, your options are few. You can attend the meetings in person. Or, if you subscribe to certain cable television systems, you can view delayed repeats of the meetings. But that’s it.

Live and archived video of governmental meetings is commonplace, except for the Wichita public schools. Citizens must either attend the meetings, or view delayed broadcasts on cable TV.

There’s a simple way to fix this. It’s called YouTube.

When the Sedgwick County Commission was faced with an aging web infrastructure for its archived broadcasts, it did the sensible thing. It created a YouTube channel and uploads video of its meetings. Now citizens can view commission meetings at any time on desktop PCs, tablets, and smartphones. This was an improvement over the old system, which was difficult to use and required special browser plug-ins. I could never get the video to play on my Iphone.

The Wichita school district could do the same. In fact, the district already has a YouTube channel. Yes, it takes a long time to upload two or three hours of video to YouTube, but once started the process runs in the background without intervention. No one has to sit and watch the process.

Earlier this year I asked why the district does not make video of its meetings available archived online. The district responded that it “has a long-standing commitment to the USD 259 community of showing unabridged recordings of regular Board of Education meetings on Cox Cable Channel 20 and more recently AT&T U-verse Channel 99.” The meetings are broadcast seven times starting the day after each meeting. Two of the broadcasts start at 1:00 am.

I was also told “The district does not archive complete Board meetings on the Web site because of file size and bandwidth.” YouTube takes care of that problem at no cost. As it turns out, the district does have some material from board meetings available on its website. This is welcome. But not complete meetings, and what’s there is supplied in a non-streaming format.

Showing meetings delayed on cable TV is good. It was innovative at one time. But why aren’t meetings live? What if you can’t watch the meeting before it disappears from the schedule after a week? What if you don’t have Cox or AT&T U-verse? What if you want to watch meetings on your computer, tablet, or smartphone? I don’t think the fact that meetings are on cable TV means they can’t also be on YouTube.

It’s just an idea.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Bad news from Topeka on taxes and schools, and also in Wichita. Also, a series of videos that reveal the nature of government.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: The sales tax increase is harmful and not necessary. Kansas school standards are again found to be weak. The ASR water project is not meeting expectations. Then, the Independent Institute has produced a series of videos that illustrate the nature of government. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 88, broadcast July 19, 2015.

The “Love Gov” series of videos from the Independent Institute can be found here: Love Gov: From first date to mandate.

Kansas school standards evaluated

A new edition of an ongoing study shows that Kansas school standards are weak, compared to other states. This is a continuation of a trend.

Last week the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) published a new version of its ongoing study Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scales: Results From the 2013 NAEP Reading and Mathematics Assessments. As was also found in past years, the standards that the state of Kansas uses to evaluate students are low.

This study is important because states set their own standards for evaluating students, as the report explains: “Because each state set its own standards, there was no assurance that students who met the standards of one state would be able to meet the standards of another state, and one could not compare the effectiveness of schools across states in terms of the percentages of students reported to meet the standards.”

There is a national test that is the same in all states, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Again, from the report: “NAEP provided a common scale on which the stringency of the various state criteria for proficiency could be compared.” The purpose of the study is to map each state’s standards to a common standard. By doing this, we can determine whether a state uses a stringent or weak standard to evaluate students. This study does not evaluate the performance — good or bad — of a state’s students. Rather, the study evaluates the state and its standards.

The two-page summary for Kansas is here.

The summary is this:

For reading in grades four and eight, the answer to the question “How do Kansas’ reading standards for proficient performance at grades 4 and 8 in 2013 map onto the NAEP scale?” is “below basic.”

For math in grades four and eight the answer to the same question is “basic.”

This means that the state of Kansas says students are “proficient” when by NAEP standards the students are “basic” or “below basic.”

Especially in reading, Kansas standards are low. For grade four reading, 26 states (including Kansas) are in the “below basic” category. For grade eight reading, only nine other states besides Kansas fall into the “below basic” category.

Following, charts excerpted from the study showing how Kansas measures against the other states. In some cases, there are few states with lower standards than Kansas. In no case is Kansas above the middle. Click charts for larger versions.

NAEP scale equivalents of state grade 4 reading standards for proficient, 2013, Kansas emphasized 2015-07

NAEP scale equivalents of state grade 8 reading standards for proficient, 2013, Kansas emphasized 2015-07

NAEP scale equivalents of state grade 4 math standards for proficient, 2013, Kansas emphasized 2015-07

NAEP scale equivalents of state grade 8 math standards for proficient, 2013, Kansas emphasized 2015-07

Wichita schools may ask for higher taxes

The Wichita Eagle reports that the Wichita public school district may ask for more property tax revenue. Following are some charts for this district.

The chart of spending is per student, inflation adjusted. On the enrollment and employment chart, note that the ratio of employees — including teachers — to students has been on a mostly downward trend for many years. Click charts for larger versions.

History of spending in the Wichita school district. Figures are per student, adjusted for inflation.
History of spending in the Wichita school district. Figures are per student, adjusted for inflation.
Enrollment and employment statistics for the Wichita school district.
Enrollment and employment statistics for the Wichita school district.

Examining a Kansas school district election

In its campaign to convince voters to raise taxes, the Auburn-Washburn school district deceives voters. David Dorsey explains.

Eight reasons why the Auburn-Washburn (USD 437) LOB election increase is a ruse

By David Dorsey, Kansas Policy Institute

Auburn-Washburn USD 437 is in the midst of a Local Option Budget (LOB) election, asking district voters to approve an up-to three mill increase in their taxing authority. As part of the effort to convince us to support their request, I received, along with every other USD 437 resident, a propaganda card via USPS last week. The card (of which I have provided both front and back) includes virtually every deceptive tactic used by school districts to cajole voters into supporting a tax increase, including the implication that without this extra money, the futures of little Evan and Clare are in doubt.

I must preface the following remarks by saying that I have largely supported the district’s expansion in the past, having enthusiastically voted in favor of building a new elementary school (Farley) several years ago. I also recognize that as school districts go, USD 437 is well run. Their administrative costs are below the state per-pupil average and are 17th lowest among the 25 largest districts statewide. And undoubtedly the relative quality of USD 437 plays a role in increasing property values in the district. Having said that, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this election is just plain unwarranted. Below is the flip side of the card followed by eight reasons why the election is truly needless.

  1. They already have the money.  As the table shows, USD 437 has a consistent cash reserve balance of about $9 million each July 1. The card says they are going to use cash reserves to cover part of the “Block Grant reductions,” but the $386k in taxes they tell us they need represents less than five percent of the district’s cash reserves. If they pulled the $386k from those reserves (taxes they received in prior years but didn’t spend), they would still have several million more than in 2008 and prior years, and the district didn’t say they lacked sufficient reserves during those years.
  2. They don’t spend the money they budget. In the 2013-14 school year, USD 437 spent nearly $2 million less than budgeted.  Do they really expect the voters to believe they need another $386 thousand (out of a total budget of over $65 million – roughly six-tenths of a percent) to “maintain our excellent schools?”
  3. They use misleading tactics to imply they have, and will continue to suffer budget cuts under the  block grant funding formula. They say (in bold, nonetheless) that the state reduced cash support by over $1.1 million for the current school year. Actually, the truth is under the three-year block grant funding law, USD 437 will get an increase in state aid of $1.4 million from $30.5 million to $31.9 million (4.3%).
  4. They act as if they have no authority over spending. According to the card “expenses are expected to rise next year by $1,252,000.” They speak of costs as if they are analogous to flood waters; that they are simply at their mercy and have no control over them. And this argument gets to the heart of the prevailing mentality that instead of trying to be more efficient with taxpayer money, school districts feel they are justly entitled to more taxpayer money.
  5. It’s simply a last-chance cash grab. Under block grant funding, districts must have LOB elections prior to July 1, 2015 or wait two years.
  6. It’s another false choice, right from the give-us-more-or-we’ll-have-to-cut playbook. The card itemizes six potential ways they “will consider” increasing fees/charges to students and five rather vague ways to reduce expenses. Do they really believe it will take a 1% increase in the LOB (again, that’s six-tenths of one percent of the total budget) to keep from increasing class sizes or from having to “Cut Programs (TBD)?”
  7. Kansas taxpayers are already overburdend and will experience yet another tax increase at the state level. School districts don’t operate in a vacuum. As USD 437 is asking their residents to pony up more money at a local level, the state legislature will be increasing taxes statewide by as much as $470 million. Those of us who will foot this bill can’t simply demand a pay raise to cover our increased food, insurance, transportation, or housing costs. So why should school districts be able to?
  8. It will not improve student outcomes. I saved the most important reason for last. Regardless of the dire implications, the result of this election will have exactly zero effect on the educational outcomes of little Evan and Clare when they enter kindergarten — three years from now!

Examining Kansas City school district claims

A critical look at the statements coming from one of the largest school districts in Kansas leads to wonder if the Kansas City school superintendent is uninformed, misinformed, or simply lying. Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute reports.

USD 500 Kansas City misleads on school funding and budget claims

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute

At a time when many school districts are issuing misleading statements about school funding to parents, teachers and legislators, recent claims by USD 500 Kansas City set a new transparency low. A story in the Kansas City Star outlined the district’s plans to reduce spending, which Superintendent Cynthia Lane blamed on “…years of low state funding, rising costs and the loss this year of $2 million in state money because of a new block grant funding measure….”

Citizens are also dealing with rising costs, and school districts would like to inflict even higher costs on them — more taxes — to fund districts’ financial desires. “Years of low state funding” is a matter of opinion but data from the Kansas Department of Education and the Kansas Division of the Budget show that state funding and total funding of schools are setting new records this year.

Part of the 2015 increase in state aid ($522 million according to block grant files prepared by KSDE) is money that had been inappropriately recorded as Local aid in prior years (20 mills mandated by the Legislature for all districts) but state aid is still at an all-time high with that adjustment. Total taxpayer support of public education will also set a new record this year.

Contrary to Supt. Lane’s implication, however, USD 500 is not getting $2 million less in state aid with the block grant, it is gaining $12.8 million in state aid this year without counting any increases for KPERS, Bond & Interest or Special Education. What she is really saying — but doesn’t want you to know — is that she wanted an even larger increase and says the district is being “cut” because it didn’t get as much of an increase as it desired.

That is just the beginning of the district’s conscious efforts to mislead parents, teachers and legislators. “We have cut more than $50 million,” Lane said. “There is no longer any fat left. … I frankly think there is very little left to cut that doesn’t dramatically impact what we do for our kids.”

Budget cut claims don’t hold up

The district has definitely not reduced spending by more than $50 million as implied by Supt. Lane. They may have budgeted for and spent less than they would like (which is what Supt. Lane is really saying) but they most certainly have not cut spending recently (as she wants you to think). This comparison of the district’s budget and actual spending over the last ten years shows that spending less than the amount budgeted is rather common but doesn’t necessarily mean that spending was actually reduced; most often, it means that their plan to spend more was reduced. Districts openly admit that they budget more than they plan to spend to avoid having to re-publish a budget … but conveniently forget to mention that fact when claiming that their budget was cut.

Operating budgets were at record-highs in Kansas City this year and the two previous years; actual spending on current operating costs set records the last two years and likely will do so again this year.

Operating spending increases between 2005 and 2014 in the Kansas City district have been very large across all cost centers; capital spending also jumped but debt service has been stable. Administration spending “only” increased by 23 percent but it was well above average in 2005 and was the second highest spender among large districts last year (profligate USD 501 Topeka wins that prize at $1,568 per-pupil). Shawnee Mission, by comparison, spends $942 per-pupil on administration; spending at that level would save $9.4 million in the Kansas City district, which could be spent on Instruction or returned to taxpayers.

Listening to administrators and media reports, one would think the district is suffering from extreme austerity but district financial reports show otherwise. And these spending comparisons only reflect what has actually been spent. USD 500 also boosted operating cash reserves by $26.7 million over the period, going from $25.1 million in 2005 to $51.8 million in 2014. Operating reserves increase when more money is collected than is spent.

“Very little left to cut” is a farce

Supt. Lane may claim that there is very little left to cut but a July 2013 Legislative Post Audit report on the district says differently; page after page lists recommendations to bring district spending in line with market conditions and reduce costs. One recommendation was “Reduce Custodial and Maintenance Positions and Salaries” since some salaries were found to be more than 20% higher than paid in the private sector and the district had more staff than comparable districts. The district response is listed in the audit: “The community and staff will resist any reduction in staff or salaries. The custodians might unionize if staff positions or salaries are reduced.”

Here is a sampling of maintenance, custodian and bus driver pay taken from an Open Records request of the 2014 school year payroll. This list reflects the highest paid in these positions and reflects total pay (wages, overtime, bonuses, etc.) but do not include any benefits. The position titles are shown as provided by the district.

The simple solution would be to outsource this type of work to private sector companies as is done by some districts. Private sector companies are fully capable of providing these services at the same or better quality and at a better price.

The LPA audit also recommended reducing administrative salaries to market wages through attrition; the district responded by saying “staff would resist any reduction in salaries.” This table shows pay increases given to the highest paid district employees, all of whom are administrators who mostly received double-digit pay increases over the last two years.

Supt. Lane told the Star “I absolutely believe if you have to cut people, you have got to start at the top.” She was referring to the dismissal of Edwin Hudson, chief of Human Relations, and “… 30 assessment managers hired three years ago to keep track of state assessment scores so teachers and principals could concentrate more on school instruction.” Loading up on managers to track state assessment scores that are released once per year (except last year when no scores were released because of technical issues) is symptomatic of district hiring practices.

Over the last ten years, USD 500 increased its management staff by 18.8 percent; management is a KPI-defined label that includes superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, assistant principals, directors, managers, supervisors and instruction specialists. Maintenance, transportation and food workers jumped by 45.6 percent, teacher aides more than doubled and a variety of employment categories we lumped into All Other shot up by 42.7 percent. Enrollment, meanwhile, increased by just 7.2 percent.

Non-teaching staff jumped by a third and total employment is 24.4 percent higher. The district has one full time equivalent employee for every 5.9 students.

USD 500 has one manager for every 125 students, which is very inefficient compared to other districts. Shawnee Mission, for example, had one manager for every 210 students last year and has since reduced its administrative footprint because Superintendent Jim Hinson felt it was too large. If Kansas City had the same pupil/manager load as Shawnee Mission (before it was reduced), they would have 66 fewer managers … and those costs could be made available for instruction instead of suing citizens for more money.

Here’s another example of misleading information from USD 500. The employee count in the above table comes from official KSDE personnel reports with data provided by each school district. But USD 500 may have many more employees. The LPA efficiency audit shows that the district was significantly under-reporting employment to KSDE. Lest anyone suggest that the KSDE report doesn’t contain categories that capture all of the district’s staff, it should be noted that the Certified Personnel and Non-Certified Personnel reports each have an “Other” category for such purpose. Consciously and consistently underreporting employment by more than 200 employees fits the district’s pattern of providing misleading information.

Misrepresentation by design

The district’s financial position is much different than represented by management, but it should be noted that staff, students and parents are likely experiencing legitimate resource issues. Frankly, that’s part of a pattern across many school districts, which is intended to gain sympathy and support for higher spending at the expense of others. USD 259 in Wichita, for example, is telling staff and media that they are suffering a $4.8 million “cut” with the block grants this year when in reality, they plan to spend $87 million more this year.

The Kansas City district even takes misrepresentation into the courtroom. I was in the courtroom when Supt. Lane testified that lack of funding was the reason that many of the district’s students weren’t adequately prepared for college and career, but she is on record placing the blame elsewhere, months before she made her court appearance.

When the U.S. Department of Education denied a portion of the district’s proposal to raise standards in a requested waiver from the Kansas Approved Accountability Plan from USDOE, Supt. Lane responded by saying, “The Kansas assessment is not rigorous enough to guarantee that our students are on-track with where they need to be. We have asked to raise standards for our students by administering the MAP, which is a more rigorous assessment, and USDOE is telling us ‘No!'”

The district newsletter in which this quote appears makes no mention of funding; the blame for academic issues is placed solely on sub-standard assessment issues. Supt. Lane may say that funding is also an issue but the point here is that the story routinely is crafted to maximize sympathy for the desired outcome.

That’s a disservice to staff, parents, legislators and most important, to students.

Kansas City school district figures

The Kansas City, Kansas school district has implemented layoffs and salary cuts. Following are some charts of statistics for this district. Data is from Kansas State Department of Education. Click on charts for larger versions.

Spending in Kansas City school district.
Spending in Kansas City school district.
Enrollment and employment in Kansas City school district.
Enrollment and employment in Kansas City school district.
Fund balances for Kansas City school district.
Fund balances for Kansas City school district.

Kansas public school establishment ought to thank Sam Brownback

Kansas public schools ought to thank the governor and legislature for failing to give parents the power of school choice.

The public school establishment in Kansas is angry with the governor and legislature over school finance. Really, the public schools ought to be grateful for Governor Sam Brownback. In many states with conservative Republican governors, school choice programs have grown. In the summer of 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported on what it called “The Year of School Choice.”

Some governors have been warriors for school choice. Not Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, however. He signed a small school choice bill when it landed on his desk. But he has not vocally advocated for expanded school choice. There are several Kansas legislators who are in favor of school choice, but not enough, certainly not in leadership.

As public schools and their unions despise any form of school choice and the accountability it provides, they should be grateful for our governor and legislature. Kansas public schools operate without much competition, and that’s the way public schools and their unions like it.

School choice in Kansas

How little school choice exists in Kansas? One implementation of school choice that is popular in some states is the charter school. According to National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Kansas has a poor charter school law. That is, Kansas law makes it difficult to start and maintain a charter school. Of the 43 states that have charter schools, Kansas ranked 42. Kansas public schools are effectively shielded from the diversity and competition that charter schools provide.

Others have also found the Kansas charter school law to be very restrictive. The Center for Education Reform found the Kansas charter school law to be the worst in the nation.

Governor Brownback signed a tax credit scholarship program. The Kansas program is small and restrictive, earning the grade of “D” from Center for Education Reform. Kansas has no school voucher program.

Altogether, Kansas parents have little power to choose schools for their children. The primary power Kansas parents have is to choose where they live. If a family can afford to, it can live in a district where the public schools are not as bad as they are in other districts. Given that these desirable districts almost always cover higher-income areas, poor parents don’t have this possibility.

School choice won’t fix everything, but it goes a long way. Here’s a portion of the 2011 Wall Street Journal article “The Year of School Choice.”

Choice by itself won’t lift U.S. K-12 education to where it needs to be. Eliminating teacher tenure and measuring teachers against student performance are also critical. Standards must be higher than they are.

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.

In Topeka, to raise taxes, scare the voters

The Topeka public school district is using scare tactics to persuade voters to raise taxes. David Dorsey of Kansas Policy Institute explains.

Topeka schools use scare tactics to justify LOB election

By David Dorsey

The USD 501 school board voted unanimously on April 29 to hold an election to increase the district’s local option budget (LOB). They claim the $3 million that could be raised with voter approval is necessary “in the face of state budget cuts.”  The district held three public meetings to discuss how to deal with what they called a $1.6 million cut in state funding this year and $2 million over the next two years. KPI has shown in this blog that Topeka Public Schools will actually get a total increase in state aid of 6.5% over the three years of the new block grant funding law.

But that’s not how a school district sees things. To the educrats, a cut means getting a smaller increase than they had planned.

If I were the suspicious type, I might think the meetings were just a ruse, using the implicit threat of cutting school programs in order to scare the public into supporting an override election to raise more money.

The purpose here is not to revisit the increase vs. decrease debate. The purpose here is to discuss the spending side of the equation and show just how easy it would be for USD 501 to meet their self-defined shortfalls – and without having any impact on students.

First, here’s a little perspective on the realities between what is budgeted and how much is actually  spent. The adjoining table shows the millions that have gone unexpended for the last four years. Given this recent history, it’s hard to imagine that a $1.6 million “cut” from the budgeted $203 million 2014-15 budget is even a concern, let alone cause for an election.

Even if one concedes the point of a revenue shortfall, should the taxpayers of USD 501 (in the name of full disclosure, I do not live in the district, so I don’t have a dog in this hunt) shell out more money to the district? Or could the district find ways to reduce spending and operate more efficiently (a concept foreign to any government organization)? As a former employee of USD 501 I can attest that finding a savings of what amounts to $114 per pupil should be pretty easy to accomplish.

I offer these three opportunities that would reduce spending far in excess of what the district calls a cut and save local taxpayers the burden of providing more financial support to a district that won’t look seriously at reducing spending.

Reduce a bloated administration

As the table shows, Topeka Public Schools has the highest per pupil administrative costs of the 25 largest districts in the state. A glance at their own budget document reveals the costs are trending significantly higher. The 2013-14 costs were a 14% increase from the previous year. The USD 501 2014-15 budget for administration and support of $28,301,407 is a whopping 25% higher than 2013-14! That’s an increase from two years ago of 41.8% when administration costs were just under $20 million.

Some of that increase can be explained by the decision made by the USD 501 school board to drastically increase salaries of the administrative staff by $435,400 in the summer of 2013 in the name of being competitive with other districts. Perhaps if USD 501 was “competitive” in terms of administrative costs per pupil, there would be no issue.

 I’m guessing these facts didn’t come up at the public meetings.

Put literacy and math coaches back in the classroom

Little-known to the public is that in every USD 501 school there are licensed teachers who do NOT teach students. They are known as math coaches and literacy coaches. Each school has at least one coach and most have more than one. What is their job, you ask? They are in the buildings to help classroom teachers do a better job. Furthermore, USD 501 forbids the coaches from directly teaching students, except in special circumstances. They are there to teach the teachers.

There are several reasons the practice of having licensed teachers be coaches should end.

  • “Teaching the teachers” is what professional development is supposed to do.
  • Dealing with ineffective teachers should be the job of the principals, not other teachers.
  • Since coaches have no contractual authority over teachers, teachers do not have to utilize coaches. In practice, that means teachers who are least effective don’t solicit assistance from the coaches, so the coaches end up spending most of their time with the most effective teachers.
  • Many coaches use the position as a stepping-stone toward getting into administration.
  • Most of the coaches are among the best teachers in the district and should be with students, not other teachers.

To be fair to USD 501, math and literacy coaches are an educational trend and most districts now employ them. However, it doesn’t stray from the fact that money spent on coaches doesn’t directly benefit students. In fact, students lose out anytime a quality teacher chooses to become a coach and leaves the classroom.

Putting just one coach per building back in the classroom through attrition would go a long way toward dealing with the budget “cut.”

Cash reserves

The district could easily deal with any short-term budget issue simply by using their current operating cash reserves. The following table shows USD 501’s cash reserves for the past ten years. The table not only shows the district had in excess of $24 million from which to draw at the beginning of this school year, but that is 56.2% more than a decade ago. I doubt they explained that fact to the patrons at the public meetings.

I now present a rather conservative approach to dealing with the “budget cut.” A 5% reduction in administration, returning just one coach in each building to the classroom, and tapping 10% from the operating cash reserves, hardly Draconian measures, would generate nearly twice as much as they could take from the voters.

Savings Category Spending reduction
5% reduction in administration costs $1.41 million
Returning 1 coach to the classroom (through attrition) in each traditional public school building – 26 X $60,000 (salary/benefits)  

$1.56 million

10% from operating cash reserves $2.47 million

Total reduction

 $5.44 million

Board member Patrick Woods was quoted as saying K-12 funding is a “state responsibility.” Maybe it’s time the state starts taking responsibility for how the money gets managed.

Kansas school weightings and effects on state aid

In making the case for more Kansas school spending, the focus on base state aid per pupil leaves out important considerations.

Kansas school finance formula at-risk weighting history tableMuch of the discussion surrounding school funding in Kansas has centered around base state aid per pupil. It’s the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula, and therefore an important number. But base state aid is not the only important number. Action taken by the Kansas Legislature has led to increases in state funding for schools at the same time that base state aid has fallen. Much of the increase is due to the conditions that schools say are costly, such as teaching students from low-income families or non-English speaking students.

School districts are compensated for these costs through weightings. If a district has a student who falls into certain categories — like qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches — that adds a weighting in that category. The number of pupils plus the number of weightings are multiplied by base state aid to determine total state aid. 1

A large weighting — in terms of its magnitude — is the bilingual education weighting, intended to cover additional costs of non-English speaking students. This weighting was originally 20 percent. Starting with the 2005-2006 school year it was raised to 39.5 percent.

Kansas school finance formula at-risk weighting history. Click for larger version.
Kansas school finance formula at-risk weighting history. Click for larger version.
Another large weighting is the at-risk weighting, intended to cover the additional costs of teaching students from low-income families. This started at five percent. As shown in the nearby chart, it has risen by a factor of nine, reaching 45.6 percent starting with the 2008-2009 school year. This chart doesn’t include the high-density at-risk weighting. Starting with the 2006-2007 school year districts with a high concentration of at-risk students could receive an extra weighting of four percent or eight percent. Two years later the weightings were raised to six percent and ten percent. This formula was revised again in 2012 in a way that probably slightly increased the weightings.

The weightings have a large effect on school funding. For the 2004-2005 school year, base state aid was $3,863 and the at-risk weighting was ten percent. An at-risk student, therefore, generated $4,249 in funding. Other weightings might also apply.

Ten years later base state aid is $3,852 and the at-risk weighting is 45.6 percent. This generates funding of $5,609. If in a district that qualifies for the maximum high-density at-risk weighting, an additional $404 in funding is generated. (These numbers are not adjusted for inflation.)

Kansas school spending per student, compared to base state aid, adjusted for CPI, 2014. Click for larger version.
Kansas school spending per student, compared to base state aid, adjusted for CPI, 2014. Click for larger version.
As can be seen in the charts produced from data available from the Kansas State Department of Education, the ratio of total state spending to base state aid has generally risen since the adoption of the school finance formula two decades ago. For the school year ending in 1993 the ratio was 0.7, meaning that state aid was less than base state aid. For the school year ending in 2014, the ratio was 1.85, or 2.6 times as much as in 1993. This means that while base state aid per pupil for 2014 was $3,838, total spending by the state was $7,088 per pupil.

Kansas school spending per student, ratio of state aid per pupil to base state aid per pupil, 2014
Kansas school spending per student, ratio of state aid per pupil to base state aid per pupil, 2014

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita economic development, Kansas schools and spending, minimum wage

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Can we reform economic development in Wichita to give us the growth we need? Kansas school test scores, school spending, and how the Wichita district spends your money. Then, who is helped by raising the minimum wage? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 84, broadcast May 10, 2015.

Kansas school employees, the trend

The trend in Kansas public school employment and teacher/pupil ratios may surprise you, given the narrative presented by public schools.

“More students, but fewer teachers — Since 2009, Kansas schools have gained more than 19,000 students but have 665 fewer teachers.” (Quality at Risk: Impact of Education Cuts, Kansas Center for Economic Growth)

“Class sizes have increased, teachers and staff members have been laid off.” (What’s the Matter With Kansas’ Schools?, New York Times)

This is typical of the sentiment in Kansas — that there are fewer teachers since Sam Brownback became governor, and that class sizes have exploded.

Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for the interactive visualization of this data.
Kansas school enrollment and employment data. Click for the interactive visualization of this data.
Below is a chart of data from Kansas State Department of Education. This data shows that for the past four years employment is rising, both for teachers and certified employees. Also, the ratio of these employees to students is falling, meaning fewer pupils per employee.

Class size is not the same as pupil-teacher ratio. But if there are proportionally more teachers than students, we have to wonder why class sizes are growing. What are the teachers doing?

The story is not the same in each school district. I’ve created an interactive visualization that lets you examine the employment levels and ratios in individual Kansas school districts. Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

Kansas School Enrollment and Employment
Kansas School Enrollment and Employment
Kansas School Employment
Kansas School Employment
Kansas School Pupil-Teacher Ratio
Kansas School Pupil-Teacher Ratio

Kansas school test scores, an untold story

If the Kansas public school establishment wants to present an accurate assessment of Kansas schools, it should start with its presentation of NAEP scores.

Kansas public school leaders are proud of Kansas schools, partly because of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” Kansas ranks high among the states on this test. It’s important, however, to examine the results from a few different angles to make sure we understand the entire situation.

I’ve gathered scores from the 2013 administration of the test, which is the most recent data available. I present data in an interactive visualization that you may use through the links at the end of this article. The most widely available NAEP data is for two subjects: reading and math, and for two grades, fourth and eighth. In the nearby images captured from the visualizations, I present data for Kansas and the average for national public schools. I’ve also added Texas and Florida, as schools in those states have sometimes been mentioned in comparisons to Kansas. The numbers in the charts are the percent of students that score at or above proficient.

NAEP scores grouped by ethnicity. Click for larger version.
NAEP scores grouped by ethnicity. Click for larger version.

Considering all students, Kansas has the best scores for all combinations of grade levels and subjects, except for one.

When we compare black students only, we find Kansas outperformed by Texas in all cases. National public schools beat Kansas in one case, and tie in another.

Looking at Hispanic students only, Florida beats Kansas in three cases and ties in one. In some cases the difference is large.

Looking at white students only, Texas outperforms Kansas in all cases. National public schools score higher than Kansas in three of four cases.

Another way to look at test scores is to group students by eligibility for free or reduced school lunches. This is a widely used surrogate for family income. In this analysis Kansas performs better in comparison to other states, but Kansas is not always the best.

NAEP scores grouped by free/reduced lunch eligibility. Click for larger version.
NAEP scores grouped by free/reduced lunch eligibility. Click for larger version.

These visualizations are interactive, meaning that you may adjust parameters yourself. For the visualization grouping students by ethnicity, click here. For the visualization grouping students by school lunch eligibility, click here.

Political perspective masquerades as ‘documentary’

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Political perspective masquerades as ‘documentary’

By Dave Trabert

“Where the Buffaloed Roam — An Ode to the Kansas Budget,” a film by Louisburg High School student Carson Tappan, is being featured at the Kansas City Film Festival.  It is billed as a “documentary” but in reality, it merely presents a political viewpoint that doesn’t let facts get in the way of the story it wants to tell.

Mr. Tappan is to be commended for tackling the project and it is heartening to see a high school student take an interest in state budget issues. He deserves an “A” for initiative and creativity but he fails in his goal to “make the problem clean and simple.” I agreed to be interviewed for the film and provided Mr. Tappan with a great deal of data, some of which contradicts claims made by other participants but he chose not to use it.

I recently asked Mr. Tappan why he excluded pertinent facts I provided and he wrote back saying, “I did not exclude any facts that you provided, the interview was too long to keep it in its entirety.” But as explained later in this piece, he did indeed exclude facts that contradict one of his own contentions.

Mr. Tappan and other participants in the film are certainly entitled to their opinion, and healthy discussions of alternate views are productive. Different opinions can be evenly presented in a documentary format but “Where the Buffaloed Roam” goes out of its way to ridicule those who don’t agree with its premise that reducing taxes is a bad idea.

The film takes the position that states like Texas and Florida can manage without an income tax because they have oil and tourism revenue, but that is not the reason. Texas, for example, could have all of the oil revenue in the nation and still have a high tax burden if it spent more. Every state provides the same basket of basic services (education, social service, etc.) but some states do so at a much lower cost and pass the savings on in the form of lower taxes.

In 2012, the states that tax income spent 49 percent more per-resident providing services than the states without an income tax, and they don’t do it by pushing spending to local government; the ten states with the highest combined state and local tax burden spent 43 percent more per resident than the ten states with the lowest burdens. Kansas, by the way, spent 37 percent more per resident than the states without an income tax.

While Kansas spent $3,409 per resident, Texas only spent $2,293 and Florida spent just $1,862 per resident. Small states also spent less; New Hampshire (which doesn’t have an income tax or a state sales tax) spent just $2,455 per resident. States that spend less, tax less.

The “oil and tourism” objection is common so I gave this information to Mr. Tappan and discussed it in the interview. He didn’t just ignore those facts .. he actually made the “oil and tourism” argument.

The “clean and simple” explanation of the Kansas budget is that spending wasn’t adjusted when taxes were reduced. Regardless of whether legislators agreed with tax reform, they and Governor Brownback should have reduced the cost of government. Instead, they succumbed to pressure from the bureaucracy and special interests and continue to increase spending. General Fund spending will set a new record this year and is proposed to rise even higher over the next two years.

Let’s put that in perspective. Kansas’ 2012 spending of $6.098 billion was 37 percent higher than the per-resident spending of states without an income tax. This year Kansas is expected to spend $191.5 million more than in 2012 and the budgets under consideration in the Legislature will add another $210.1 million in the next two years.

Kansas doesn’t need to be as efficient as states with low taxes to balance the budget…the state just needs to operate a few percentage points better. Ask legislators or Governor Brownback if government operates efficiently and they will say, “of course not.”  Then ask what they are going to do about it. This year, as in the past, the majority would rather raise taxes unnecessarily than stand up to the bureaucracy and special interests that profit from excess government spending. That is the clean and simple explanation of what is wrong with the Kansas budget.

Former state budget director Duane Goossen tells a different story (but still won’t debate us in public where he can be called out). He said revenue dropped three straight years during the recent recession and it appeared that revenue would decline for a fourth year, which prompted a sales tax increase that he attributes for the revenue turnaround. But that’s not exactly true. Mr. Goossen talked about tax revenue declines before carefully shifting to a discussion of revenue declines. Most people, and probably Mr. Tappan, wouldn’t catch that nuance but Mr. Goossen knows exactly what he was doing.

As shown in the above table, tax revenue only declined two years during the recession, in 2009 and 2010. Total revenue did decline a third year and was projected down a fourth year but that was because of conscious decisions made by legislators to transfer tax money out of the General Fund. The November 2009 Consensus Revenue Estimate predicted that tax revenues would increase for 2011, from $5.192 billion to $5.324 billion, and that estimate did not consider any sales tax increase. Mr. Gossen is simply pushing a notion that tax increases are necessary. Or, maybe tax increases are Mr. Gossen’s preference but he would rather distract his interlocutor with obfuscation than simply state his true goal.

This tax revenue chart that appears in the film clearly attributes tax revenue growth between 2010 and 2012 to the 1 cent sales tax that began July 1, 2010 (it’s unknown whether Mr. Goossen or Mr. Tappan prepared it because there is no sourcing). But this chart is yet another misrepresentation of the facts.

Data readily available from the Kansas Legislative Research Department shows that income taxes and other tax sources also increased in 2011 and 2012. Income tax revenue increased by $560 million over the two years while retail sales taxes grew by $490 million and all other General Fund taxes increased by $125 million. 

Kansas certainly has a spending problem but tax revenue is actually running well ahead of inflation…even after income taxes were reduced. General Fund tax revenue increased 28 percent between 2004 and 2014 while inflation was only 24 percent. The November 2014 Consensus Revenue Estimate shows that tax revenue will continue to stay well ahead of inflation (assuming inflation continues at its current pace. Tax revenue in 2017 would be 39 percent higher than 2004 but inflation would be 29 percent higher (again, assuming inflation maintains its current pace.)

The film also contains a number of false claims about school funding. Heather Ousley, who is a member of an organization that actively campaigns for the defeat of legislative candidates who do not subscribe to the “just spend more” philosophy of school funding, repeatedly claimed that schools are being defunded. She also repeats the mantra that schools are being defunded so that public education can be privatized; she may believe that but having spent a lot of time working with legislators, I know that to be a false assumption. Defenders of the status quo are fond of repeating the mantra, but it is nothing more than a scare tactic.

Schools are not being defunded and Mr. Tappan was provided with data from the Kansas Department of Revenue that contradicts claims made in the film. Again, he chose not to use that information. In reality, school funding will set a fourth consecutive record this year at $6.145 billion. On a per-pupil basis, it’s $13,343 and will be the third consecutive record. The facts are explained in greater detail in another blog post, which also shows that state funding is increasing this year under the new block grants.

There are other examples of factual inaccuracy in the film, but hopefully those set forth here sufficiently demonstrate that “Where the Buffaloed Roam” is not the documentary it purports to be but an artfully designed political statement.

Those who agree with the film’s position are certainly entitled to their view. They should just be honest and say that they prefer higher taxes and the high spending that goes with it.

Note: KPI staff members Patrick Parkes and David Dorsey deserve credit for much of the research in this blog post.

Kansas school test scores, two interactive visualizations

When comparing Kansas school test scores to those of other states or the nation, it’s important to consider disaggregated data. Otherwise, we may make inaccurate conclusions regarding Kansas schools.

Kansas school leaders are proud of Kansas schools, partly because of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” Kansas ranks pretty high among the states on this test. It’s important, however, to examine the results from a few different angles to make sure we understand the entire situation.

NAEP test scores subdivided by ethnicity. Click for larger version.
NAEP test scores subdivided by ethnicity. Click for larger version.
I’ve gathered scores from the 2013 administration of the test, which is the most recent data available. I present them in a visualization that you can use yourself through the links at the end of this article. The most widely available NAEP data is for two subjects: reading and math, and for two grades, fourth and eighth. In the nearby images captured from the visualizations, I present data for Kansas and the average for national public schools. The numbers are the percent of students that are at or above proficient.

Looking at the data for all students, you can see why Kansas school leaders are proud: The line representing Kansas is almost always the highest. But there are important statistical considerations to take into account.

NAEP makes data available by ethnic subtypes. If we present a chart showing black students only, something different appears. In some instances the line for national public schools coincides with the Kansas line, or is above the Kansas line. A similar pattern exists when considering Hispanic students only.

Perhaps surprisingly, when considering white students only, the same pattern exists: In many cases national public schools white students score as well as, or sometimes above, Kansas white students.

NAEP test scores subdivided by eligibility for free or reduced lunch. Click for larger version.
NAEP test scores subdivided by eligibility for free or reduced lunch. Click for larger version.
Looking at the data subgroups by eligibility for free or reduced price lunches is useful, too. This eligibility is a commonly-used surrogate for selecting students from low-income households. When looking at the subgroups, the advantage of Kansas schools sometimes disappears, although the effect is not as marked.

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

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

A more technical paper gives this definition: “Simpson’s paradox refers to a phenomena whereby the association between a pair of variables (X, Y ) reverses sign upon conditioning of a third variable, Z, regardless of the value taken by Z.”

Kansas and National Public Schools demographics 2015-04In this case, the confounding factor (“lurking” variable) is that Kansas differs greatly from national public schools in the proportion of students in ethnic groups. Most prominently, in Kansas, 68 percent of students are white. For national public schools, the value is 51 percent.

This large difference in the composition of students is what makes it look like Kansas students perform better on the NAEP than the national average. But looking at the scores for ethnic subgroups, can we still say that Kansas schools outperform national public schools? It’s important to know that aggregated data can mask or hide underlying trends.

Note that there is not much difference in eligibility for free or reduced lunches between Kansas and national public schools. This is why Simpson’s Paradox is not strongly apparent in these scores.

Have you heard Kansas school leaders talk about this? Or do they present Kansas NAEP test scores without considering the different makeup of the states?

The interactive visualizations of NAEP scores are not difficult to use. The adjustment most people may want to make is selecting a different combination of states. To open the visualization for ethnicity in a new window, click here. For the visualization based on lunch eligibility, click here.

School employment data shows gaps in reporting and wide variations among districts

Kansas school districts vary widely in employment ratios, and that’s not counting the unreported employees, writes David Dorsey of Kansas Policy Institute.

School employment data shows gaps in reporting and wide variations among districts

By David Dorsey

Kansas Policy Institute has created a state public education employment metrics report for FY 2014 and the file can be accessed here. The file contains employment totals and also five categories of pupil-per-employee ratios. Here are some highlights and analysis.

Pupils per classroom teacher

The employment metrics file shows considerable variation among the districts when it comes to the number of pupils per classroom teacher. Weskan, with an enrollment of just 92 students has a ratio of 6.2 pupils for every classroom teacher, while Spring Hill with 2,850 students has 20.5 students for every classroom teacher. Among the state’s largest districts, Shawnee Mission has the highest ratio at 17.9 and Salina is the lowest at 14.6. The state median is 13, while the mean is 15.4 pupils per classroom teacher. (KSDE excludes special education and reading specialists from their definition of classroom teaches.)

These ratios are considerably smaller than what is typically reported as classroom size. It is impossible to make an exact comparison because KSDE does not keep data on classroom size.

Administrative manager employment

As the table below shows, there is a wide range of pupils per manager* across the state. Manhattan-Ogden (USD 383) carries the distinction of having the most top-heavy administration among the state’s 20 largest districts with a ratio of 96.2 pupils per manager. Contrast that with Andover (USD 385), which has 238.7 pupils per manager. Put another way, USD 383 has 5 percent more students, but 160 percent more administrators than USD 385.

Among the biggest districts, Shawnee Mission is the most efficient with nearly twice as many pupils per manager than fellow Johnson County district Blue Valley and more than twice as many pupils per manager than Topeka. Shawnee Mission claims an even smaller administrative footprint in FY 2015 in favor of more money going toward instruction.

The following table summarizes the ranges among all districts on a per-pupil basis through the low, high, and median values for each metric.

Special Education Cooperatives and Interlocals Make Comparisons Difficult

Most school districts in Kansas enter into inter-district agreements to provide special education services in an effort to provide those services in a more cost-effective manner. According to the KSDE directory, 252 of the 286 schools districts in the state are part of what is called either a cooperative or an interlocal. Essentially, it means two or more school districts in an area pool their teaching resources to serve special education kids. This distorts the employment reporting for these two reasons:

  • About half the districts are in cooperatives that list all the employees of the cooperative in only the “home” district of that cooperative. Example: the East Central Kansas Special Education Cooperative consists of 8 districts. The home district, Paola USD 368, reports 60 special education teachers and 253 special education paraprofessionals. The other 7 districts report zero special education teachers and zero special education paraprofessionals.
  • The remaining cooperatives have been given a school district number (all in the 600s), but the number of special education teachers, paraprofessionals and other employees go unreported. According to the KSDE directory of schools there are 19 such “districts” that include 143 unified school districts. And, according to KSDE, these cooperatives have 5,284 employees, none of whom are included in state employment totals because KSDE only reports employment for unified school districts.

*”Manager” is a KPI defined category that combines the 17 KSDE administrative categories reported by all school districts (superintendents, asst. superintendents, principals, asst. principals, business managers, and directors of all other functions).

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas Policy Institute President Dave Trabert

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute explains the block grants for Kansas school funding. Also: What did the school efficiency commission learn? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 79, broadcast March 22, 2015.

Kansas school funding block grants, new formula benefits students

Estimates from the Kansas Department of Education show that school funding would set new records under the block grant proposal, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

Block grants, new formula benefits students

By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute

The debate over whether to replace the current school funding formula with a temporary block grant exposed one of the greatest challenges facing public education in Kansas. Most school administrators and the special interest groups that lined up in opposition of the proposal focused almost exclusively on their institutional desire for more money and only mentioned students in the context of how they would suffer if the institutions’ demands are not met.

Every Legislative Post Audit study on schools has found them to be inefficient operators, but no administrators opposing the block grants said they would choose to operate efficiently if they wanted more money for instruction under the block grants. School administrators testifying before the K-12 Commission on Efficiency acknowledged that more money could go to classrooms if they outsourced certain functions, but no one opposing the block grants offered up those solutions. No one said that block grants would force them to cut back on their multiple layers of administration or use much of their $857 million in cash reserves. The message was pretty clear; give institutions what they want or the students will suffer.

Opponents also didn’t let facts get in their way. One superintendent said the current formula is “… tied to what it costs to educate kids” but that is a demonstrably false statement. The current formula is based on a cost study that has been proven to be deliberately skewed to produce inflated numbers. Legislative Post Audit gave legislators some estimates years ago but stressed that those estimates were only based on a specific set of variables and said “different decisions or assumptions can result in very different cost estimates.” Even the State Supreme Court said cost studies are “… more akin to estimates that the certainties …” suggested by the district court.

Administrators spoke of how much they would be “cut” under the block grants but that is largely government-speak for not getting as much of an increase as they want. Estimates from the Kansas Department of Education show that school funding would set new records under the block grant proposal, at $6.147 billion or $13,347 per pupil; only $3 million of the $171 million increase this year is for KPERS.

School funding has increased by more than $3 billion since 1998 and is $1.5 billion higher than if adjusted for enrollment and inflation. Yet only 36 percent of White students scored well enough on the 2014 ACT exam to be considered college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science; it’s even worse for Hispanic and African American students, at 14 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Only 38 percent of 4th Grade students are Proficient in Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and Low Income 4th Graders are almost three years’ worth of learning behind everyone else — in the 4th Grade!

The old school formula certainly gave institutions a lot more money but it didn’t work for students. The new formula should hold districts accountable for improving outcomes; it should also be transparent and require efficient use taxpayer money.

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.

Kansas school funding still sets new record with block grant proposal

Kansas school funding is at a record high this year and is projected to rise next year, writes Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute.

School funding still sets new record with block grant proposal

By Dave Trabert

You wouldn’t know it from media reports or school district newsletters, but school funding will still set another new record this year. Superintendents say they are dealing with budget cuts but that is largely government-speak for not getting as much of an increase as they would like — and media laps it up without asking how this year’s funding compares with last year.

The Kansas Department of Education (KDSE) says the proposed block grants for the current school year total $3.409 billion, but the block grants do not include state funding for Special Education or Bond and Interest aid. Including those amounts as listed in the Governor’s Budget Report puts total state aid at $3.985 billion. A few months ago, KSDE Deputy Superintendent of Finance Dale Dennis estimated Local aid at $1.652 billion and Federal aid at $510 million. That would put total taxpayer support at $6.147 billion this year and set a new funding record for the fourth consecutive year.

Funding per-pupil would be $13,262 (based on KSDE estimated enrollment of 463,500) and set a new record for the third consecutive year.

Total funding last year according to KSDE was $5.976 billion, so the revised estimate for this year represents a $171 million increase. Also of note, KSDE puts KPERS funding last year at $312 million and shows $315 million included in the block grant. That means — contrary to claims you might have heard — that almost all of the funding increase is not related to pension funding.

Here is a historical perspective on per-pupil school funding, adjusted upward for KPERS in the years prior to 2005 (when it wasn’t included in KSDE funding reports). The blue line shows actual funding and red line show what funding would have if adjusted for inflation each year. FYI, funding this year would be $1.503 billion less if it had just been increased for inflation and enrollment.

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.

In Kansas, resolving school district spending variances could yield savings

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Resolving school district spending variances could yield hundreds of millions in savings

By Dave Trabert

School districts spent an average $12,960 per student during the 2014 school year but the range of spending across districts varied quite significantly. Total spending went from a low of $9,245 per-pupil (USD 218 Elkhart, with 1,137 students) to a high of $23,861 (USD 490 El Dorado, 1,872 students); El Dorado also hosted a Special Ed Co-Op and must record the cost of serving students in other districts per KSDE. USD 359 Argonia had the highest spending per-pupil among districts that did not host Special Ed Co-Ops, spending $22,847 with 162 students enrolled.

Instruction spending variances can be somewhat driven by the school funding formula and student body compositions (extra money is given to districts for special education, low income students and bi-lingual students) but districts have a great deal of latitude in resource allocation. Some districts, for example, divert money from Instruction as a result of other spending decisions. Variances in spending on Administration and other cost centers, however, are primarily driven by district operating decisions.

Many Kansas school districts have low enrollment, and while it would be expected that very small districts would spend more per-pupil because of economies of scale, some small districts are able to operate at lower prices per student than many larger districts. There are also wide variances even among districts of similar size.

A complete analysis of all operating cost centers (including Operations/Maintenance, Transportation, Food Service and Community Service can be found here.

To put these variances in perspective, KPI staff calculated the potential savings of getting each district spending above median within their enrollment category down to the median for each cost center. The total comes to a staggering $516 million. There may be some circumstances that preclude some of that savings being realized but there could also be additional savings realized among those districts spending below median.

To be clear, the purpose of this analysis is not to say that a specific dollar amount of savings could be had if districts operate more efficiently. However, variances of this magnitude certainly indicate that efficiency efforts driven by the Legislature could easily yield nine-figure savings.

Better outcomes at a better price in Johnson County

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Better outcomes at a better price in Johnson County:

USD 232 De Soto and USD 231 Gardner-Edgerton

By Dave Trabert

The most recent performance and spending records of Johnson County school districts serves as a good reminder that there is no relationship between high spending and high achievement. In fact, the two districts that spend the least happen to have the best outcomes on state assessments.

Students who read grade-appropriate material with full comprehension and usually perform accurately on all grade-level math tasks are best positioned for success in college and career. Disparate demographic compositions and achievement gaps distort districts’ average scores, so student cohorts must be separately compared. De Soto and Gardner-Edgerton have the highest and second-highest percentages of income-based cohorts attaining these levels in Reading and Math and also spend the least per-pupil on current operations (no capital or debt included).

The achievement gap for low income students is common across Kansas and there are also large variances in student body compositions across districts. For example, only 8.4% of Blue Valley students are considered low income (based on eligibility for free / reduced lunch) whereas as Shawnee Mission has 37.8% who qualify as low income; eligibility for free/reduced lunch is the official metric of “income” via the Kansas Department of Education. Blue Valley’s average score benefits from having very few low income students and masks the fact that other districts do as well or better on individual student groups.

De Soto’s and Gardner-Edgerton’s superior performance has great significance for taxpayers. In fact, if the other five Johnson County districts operated at the per-pupil cost of De Soto, the burden on taxpayers could be reduced by $127.1 million! Of course, while De Soto has the lowest operating cost per-student, that doesn’t mean that the district is efficient; savings across the county would be even greater if De Soto’s costs were reduced through consolidation of non-instruction services across district lines and other efficiency opportunities.

FY 2014 per-pupil spending for each Johnson County district is shown below by cost center. Click here to download these blog tables and per-pupil spending comparisons of all Johnson County school districts, showing how spending has changed since FY 2005.

Kansas school employees by type

An interactive visualization of relative trends in Kansas school employment.

Kansas State Department of Education makes available tables of the number of employees working in Kansas schools. Employees are classified in two broad categories, Certified and Non-Certified. Within each category, employees are further classified by job type such as Superintendent, Curriculum Specialist, and Social Worker.

Visualization of certified employees, showing Principals and Curriculum Specialists highlighted.
Visualization of certified employees, showing Principals and Curriculum Specialists highlighted.
I’ve gathered the tables back to fiscal year 2002 (the 2001 – 2002 school year) and present them in an interactive visualization. There are separate visualizations for Certified and Non-Certified employees. In each, as shown in the instruction, you may check the check boxes to add or remove types of employees. For the employee types that are shown, you may click to highlight types apart from the others.

The line charts show the relative change in the number of employees. You may learn whether the number of employee type A is growing faster or slower than employee type B.

The visualization also holds tables showing the number of employees.

Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

Using the visualization.
Using the visualization.

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.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Kansas school employment and spending

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: What is the trend in Kansas school employment? Then, what do citizens know about Kansas school spending? Finally, what did Milton Friedman have to say about private vs. government spending? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Originally boradcast November 23, 2014.

Mentioned in this excerpt:
Are Kansas classroom sizes growing?, Kansans still uninformed on school spending, and Friedman: The fallacy of the welfare state