Tag Archives: Wichita and Kansas schools

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

Kansas school funding controversy is about entitlement, not need

From Kansas Policy Institute.

School funding controversy is about entitlement, not need
By Dave Trabert

When every Johnson County school district qualifies as a property-poor district, you know you have a broken school funding formula … and a controversial claim based on entitlement.

The Kansas Legislature authorized $134 million in school funding this year in a good-faith effort to resolve the Supreme Court equity finding in Gannon v. State of Kansas. Most of the increase, $109 million –- was for Supplemental General State Aid (SGSA), which equalizes Local Option Budgets for property-poor districts.  The other $25 million was for equalization of Capital Outlay aid.

Kansas Judicial Center
Kansas Judicial Center
You wouldn’t know it from most media coverage, but the Supreme Court ruling on equity provides the Legislature with broad latitude in resolving wealth-based disparity, and does not require specific funding levels. “We agree that the infirmity can be cured in a variety of ways — at the choice of the legislature. And the legislature should have an opportunity to promptly cure. Any cure will be measured by determining whether it sufficiently reduces the unreasonable, wealth-based disparity so the disparity then becomes constitutionally acceptable, not whether the cure necessarily restores funding to the prior levels.

The Legislature didn’t have to increase SGSA in order to satisfy the Supreme Court ruling on LOB equity, but they did so anyway. The $109 million authorized was based on calculations from the Kansas State Department of Education, but KSDE underestimated the amount by which districts would increase their Local Option Budgets, and now school districts want another $36 million from taxpayers. Districts want this money because the formula says they are entitled to it. But there is ample evidence that more money is not needed, and now SB 71 has been introduced into Senate Ways and Means Committee to revise the equalization formula and eliminate the $36 million increase.

SB 71 is opposed by school districts, but it is a necessary fix to a broken formula and frankly, districts don’t need the extra money.

The intention of SGSA is to offset wealth-based disparity among school districts, but calculations from the Kansas Department of Education has the current formula allocating $54.8 million to districts in Johnson County –- the state’s wealthiest county. Every district in Johnson County is considered a “property-poor” district under the current formula, including Blue Valley, which may be the most affluent district in Kansas.

Johnson County schools are being subsidized by taxpayers in far less affluent parts of Kansas under the current formula. One additional mill of property tax levied in the Blue Valley district raises $2.3 million; one mill raises $2.9 in Shawnee Mission and $1.7 million in Olathe. But taxpayers in counties where one mill generates less than $50,000 are being asked to subsidize property-rich districts; those counties include Cheyenne, Clark, Edwards, Ellis, Gove, Gray, Greeley, Kearny, Kiowa, Lane, Logan, Ness, Reno, Rice, Rooks, Rush, Russell, Stafford, Thomas, Trego and Wallace. One or more districts in those counties are considered ineligible for equalization aid by the current formula, but those districts’ patrons are expected to subsidize urban districts in Johnson County, Sedgwick County, Shawnee County and Wyandotte County –- just to name a few.

On the issue of need, the K-12 Commission on Student Achievement and Efficiency heard testimony from school districts, regional service centers and others recently, confirming that school districts could operate much more efficiently. However, school districts made it very clear that they are strongly opposed to being required to make efficient use of taxpayer money. Legislative Post Audit also told the Commission that districts have not enacted many of their recommendations to reduce the cost of services.

There is also no need to increase equalization of Capital Outlay aid. The $25 million allocated for this year was based on Capital Outlay property taxes levied by school districts last year, but districts increased local property taxes even more, entitling them to $20 million more in Capital Outlay equalization. This is another example of a broken school funding formula, as it has nothing to do with need. School districts began this year with a record $434.9 million set aside for Capital projects. Capital Outlay reserves are completely separate from capital projects related to bond issues and have increased each year since 2005. Districts may feel entitled to even more money for capital projects but there is no need to further pump up their reserves.

The equalization system and the entire entitlement-based school funding system need to be replaced with a student-focused and taxpayer-focused perspective.

Judicial panel used cherry-picked data in Gannon decision

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Judicial panel used cherry-picked data in Gannon decision

By David Dorsey

(w)e conclude that the Kansas K-12 school finance formula still stands as constitutionally inadequate by its failure to assure and implement adequate funding to meet and sustain a constitutionally adequate education as a matter of sound expert opinion from those with relevant and reliable expertise and experience with the Kansas K-12 school system.(emphasis added)

Thus is the opinion, filed December 30, 2014, from the Shawnee County District Court three-judge panel as tasked by the Kansas Supreme Court pursuant to their decision in Gannon v. Kansas in March of 2014.

We reported in a previous KPI blog that the unspecified underfunding of K-12 public education in Kansas identified in this decision is at least $548 million. The judges based their opinion on several categories of adequacy they deemed relevant to the case. One such category in the decision is entitled Adequacy As A Matter Of Student Performance (pp. 20-48). The judges included as its linchpin evidence an interview with Kansas City, Kansas USD 500 superintendent Dr. Cynthia Lane. Dr. Lane provided testimony regarding how a federal grant enabled Emerson Elementary, a USD 500 school, to significantly increase student performance.

In short, Emerson Elementary is a small K-5 school. Several years ago, it gained notoriety for being declared the lowest performing elementary school in Kansas. As such, it was awarded a School Improvement Grant (SIG) from KSDE, authorized by the No Child Left Behind law. The school was given nearly $3 million over a three-year period (2010-11 to 2012-13 school years) to improve state assessment test scores. Dr. Lane testified that “fewer than 30 percent” of the students met state standards in math and reading prior to receiving the grant. According to demographic data published by KSDE, Emerson has about 95% economically disadvantaged students. While Dr. Lane testified that Emerson is ethnically “about 50 percent African American and about 48 percent Hispanic,” KSDE reported that the ethnic breakdown is about two-thirds Hispanic, one-quarter African American and less than 10% white. She told the court that over the life of the grant Emerson’s students performed “on both the reading and math state assessment to have more than 85 percent … meeting or exceeding expectations just in the last three years. It’s a remarkable story.”

Apparently the court agreed, afforded to say:

Given the continuing grade advancement and migration upwards of K-12 schoolers during their school careers, it seems but obvious that for educational advancement, much less the maintenance of results accomplished prior with the earlier funding initiatives implemented, but now abandoned, that the revenue streams which supported those results in that period of favorable funding needed to be continued to be provided in order to properly educate the continuing stream of new faces going forward, either initially entering the school system or advancing in grade. No evidence or proffer of evidence supports otherwise. (pp. 39-40, emphasis not added)

Translated: More money = greater student achievement, and there is no evidence to the contrary.

I will now proffer contrary evidence, a much less remarkable story that should have been proffered in the original court case: Northwest Middle School.

The same year Emerson Elementary was awarded its SIG, another USD 500 school, Northwest Middle School, was awarded a similar grant with a higher amount of $4.77 million. Northwest has similar minority and economically disadvantaged populations to Emerson Elementary (just over half African American and just over one-third Hispanic and 98% low income). But the outcomes pursuant to the SIG were very much dissimilar, indeed.

The following table and the accompanying graph show how Northwest Middle School scored on the state reading and math assessments for the three years prior to receiving the SIG and during the three-year implementation of the grant.

Northwest Middle school from KPI 2015-01

As the graphics show, achievement at Northwest had an uptick in both math and reading the first year of the grant, but then fell off dramatically the following two years. To put their performance in perspective the following graphs compare Northwest to Rosedale Middle School (the USD 500 school most comparable to Northwest according to KSDE) and the USD 500 district as a whole.

Northwest and Rosedale from KPI 2015-01

In reading, Northwest underperformed both Rosedale (which did not get a SIG) and the district as a whole both prior to and after receiving the grant. The trend and gap between Northwest and Rosedale remained amazingly consistent throughout this period. The picture in math is a little different. Northwest students maintained a slight advantage over Rosedale throughout the grant period and nearly eliminated the gap with the district as a whole. However, the overall trend is downward, with just over 40% of the Northwest middle schoolers proficient in math as of the last recorded state assessments.

It is safe to say that in terms of achievement, that $4.77 million granted to Northwest Middle School in Kansas City, Kansas didn’t buy much. This is evidence that, once again, more money does not inherently make a difference in student outcomes. This nationwide study conducted by the Heritage Foundation supports that contention. Even Kansas’s own Legislative Post Audit says in this report (p. 107) that a correlation between increased funding and increased outcomes is inconclusive.

As a 20-year teaching veteran, I know it’s not the money that makes a difference in student achievement. It’s commitment by students, parents, teachers, principals and administrators to make it happen. Trying to quantify that in dollar terms is a fool’s errand. If the increase in education funding prescribed in the most recent Gannon decision were to become a reality, it would mean a nice raise for teachers and likely more administrators, but student outcomes would remain flat and achievement gaps would continue. Think of it as Montoy redux.

Clearly, the judges got it wrong. Let’s hope their decision gets overturned on appeal and an end is put to this seemingly endless carousel of education funding lawsuits. The citizens of Kansas deserve better.

The philosophy and research supporting at-risk funding

From Kansas Policy Institute.

The philosophy and research supporting at-risk funding –- second in a series
By David Dorsey, Kansas Policy Institute

As I discussed in the first blog in this series, the state of Kansas provides almost $400 million additionally each year for at-risk funding to K-12 education. But what is the philosophy behind spending more taxpayer dollars to educate economically disadvantaged students? What does the research say? And how have states responded in their particular “at-risk” funding formulas? In this blog I will briefly answer address these questions.

It may sound like a dumb question, but why is it that it should cost more to adequately educate students who are disadvantaged? Sure, it seems intuitive, but where did that idea start and where is the research to back it up?

The genesis of the premise that it costs more to adequately educate the economically disadvantaged comes from a 1969 article in theNational Tax Journal by three economists who attempted to explain why the cost of all local public services was outpacing inflation in post-World War II America. (Sidebar: their article is proof that the concern over rapidly expanding government spending is not a recent phenomenon.) The researchers suggested that differing costs for public service across jurisdictions could partially be explained by environmental factors. Specifically regarding education, they say that outcomes might be a function of “the ‘basic intelligence’ of pupils, home backgrounds and neighborhood conditions.” That seems to be the phrase subsequent researchers have locked onto to justify the need for what has become commonly known as at-risk funding.

Many studies since then, including this 1997 study and this one from 2004, focused on spending disparities and “outcome” disparities among school districts within states. Again, without getting too “wonky,” studies showed school districts that were property poor, and as a parallel had lower per pupil spending (since school financing is primarily a function of property values), had lower outcomes than their counterparts with higher property values. And of course, those property poor districts had a disproportionate share of low income families/students. Therefore, the studies concluded that poor school districts needed more money to bring their students up to an acceptable minimum outcome standard. Researchers typically defined outcome as an index of a combination of standardized test scores and other indicators such as graduation rates.

But these studies have remained academic exercises. Even though it is now a given that poor students require more money to reach a given outcome, most states now have some form of additional funding based on economic status of students. However, the amounts states have allocated are all less than the research concludes are necessary.

Yes, politics and budget constraints trump academia.

The Kansas At-Risk Timeline

In 1992 a new law entitled the School District Finance and Quality Performance Act included a 5% weighting for students who qualified for free school lunch. That percentage was increased to 6.5% in 1997 and increased seven more times in the next decade to its current level of 45.6%. In 2006, two more categories of at risk were added. One was for schools with high percentages of at risk populations and/or an enrollment density of at least 212.1 students per square mile. The other additional category targeted money for students non-proficient in math and reading, but not eligible for a free lunch. (The non-proficient category was eliminated in 2014.) In dollar terms, the 5% in 1992 generated just over $13 million. That amount is now nearly $400 million.

The situation in Kansas is not dissimilar to those in other states. At least 35 states have a mechanism for additional funding generated by economically disadvantaged students. Most of them use some variation of the number of students who qualify for free OR free or reduced lunches through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). NSLP has been the choice because it is an expedient and convenient proxy for determining economically disadvantaged students since qualification for free/reduced lunches is predominantly income based. And like Kansas many have weight values that are not static. A 2004 study out of the University of Wisconsin reports that nationwide the weights range from 15% in Vermont to 62.5% in Illinois, while a presentation last year to the Nevada state legislature showed a low of 9.15% in New Mexico to 180.0% in Georgia. The thing to keep in mind here is that it is nearly impossible to compare Kansas to other states because not all states use the same definition of disadvantaged and some use multiple factors to determine additional spending.

So how did Kansas go from a relatively modest 5% at-risk weighting in 1992 to a hefty 45.6% (with two additional categories) by 2006? That is the topic of the next blog.

Next: The political history of at-risk funding in Kansas

A Kansas calamity, at $15,399 per pupil

If things are so bad in Kansas schools at this level of spending, will any amount of spending satisfy school districts?

The Washington Post has presented a letter written by a schoolteacher in Wamego. Reading it, one might be excused for concluding that a massive calamity has befallen Kansas and Wamego specifically.

The letter is full of complaints: “Resources and staff are limited.” “Due to budget cuts, again, we are not able to have a full-time librarian, art teacher, technology teacher or music teacher.” “Schools are already struggling because of underfunding so adding more fiscal responsibility will only further cut programs.”

Click for larger version.
Click for larger version.
Given these complaints, we might look at the statistics for this district. Total spending for the school year that ended in 2014 was $15,399 per pupil. That’s lower than 2009, when spending was $16,154 (inflation-adjusted dollars). Spending in 2014 was up from the year before. See Kansas school teacher cuts, student ratios.

Spending supported by the state was $7,359 last year, down from $8,609 in 2009 (inflation-adjusted).

School Employment, USD 320 WamegoEmployment in this district has risen. Both the number of teachers and the number of certified employees is much higher than the 2009 — 2011 years. Correspondingly, the ratios of these employees to students has declined since then, although the pupil-teacher ratio has risen the past two years. See Kansas school spending visualization updated.

School Employment ratios, USD 320 WamegoThis school district has one certified employee for every eight pupils.

So: Some numbers are up, others are down, and some mostly unchanged. Taxpayers have to wonder, though: If a school district receives well over $15,000 per pupil each year, how much more does it want?

For Kansas schools, a share of your income is the standard

If Kansas personal income rises but the school spending establishment doesn’t get its cut, something is wrong, they say.

A publication by KASB is titled “Despite increases, share of Kansans’ incomes spent on public schools is at a 30-year low.”

In the document, KASB, the Kansas Association of School Boards, states: “According to new reports released by state agencies, total funding for Kansas school districts will exceed $6 billion for the first time this year. However, when compared to the total income of all Kansans, school spending will be at the lowest level in at least 30 years.”

This is not the first time KASB has made this argument. It’s a curious and ultimately spurious argument, that even though more will be spent on Kansas schools this year, it’s still not enough, as Kansan’s incomes rose faster than school spending.

Can we list the reasons why this argument is illogical?

1. What if Kansas income declined? Would KASB then call for reducing school spending to match? Not likely.

2. What if the number of students declined? Would KASB then be satisfied with spending less of our income on public schools? I don’t think so.

3. What if Kansans decided to spend more on private education rather than public education? Would KASB be satisfied if the total spent on education remained constant? Not likely, as KASB is only concerned about public education. Money spent on private education, in fact, is viewed by KASB as money that should have been spent on public schools.

Another indication of the perversity of this argument is that spending less of a share of our income to obtain a product or service is usually viewed as an advancement, not a situation to be cured. For example in 1929, American households spent 23.4 percent of disposable personal income on food. In 2013 it was 9.8 percent. This is a good thing. We have to work less in order to feed ourselves.

But to the Kansas school spending establishment, that’s not the way the world should work. If personal income rises, so too should Kansas school spending, they say. This is the entitlement society at work. When KASB writes “Kansas are spending less of their income to fund public education” it’s not meant as a sign of advancement. Instead, it is the Kansas school spending establishment complaining that it isn’t getting its share.

It’s a risky argument to make. Many Kansans are concerned that school spending rises while the quality of education falls. Kansas school vigorously oppose any sort of market-based reforms to Kansas education, such as school choice or treating teachers like private-sector employees are treated.

Now, Kansas schools argue that if hard-working Kansans increase their income, schools should get their cut too.

Wichita school district checkbook updated

writing checkData now available through November 2014.

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

Unemployment insurance for school bus drivers

Should a Kansas state insurance program be expanded to cover entirely predictable events?

A bill introduced in the Kansas Senate would allow school bus drivers working for private bus companies to collect unemployment insurance during the summer months when school is not in session. Currently these employees are specifically excluded from eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits.

Is it a good idea to extend unemployment insurance benefits to seasonal workers like these bus drivers? Part of the answer depends on what we want the meaning of the word “insurance” to be. Usually, insurance refers to something that mitigates harm from unforeseen circumstances, like a fire, tornado, or automobile accident. These are unpredictable events, although their probabilities can be forecast with accuracy considering a large population. But for jobs and employment, most job losses are unanticipated. Companies don’t wish for a loss of business that leads to layoffs.

But it is certain that school bus drivers will not have a job driving a school bus in the summer. So should this predictable event be covered by insurance? It would be like having routine auto maintenance and a set of new tires every four years paid for by auto insurance. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it transforms insurance — something that protects against accidents — into something that pays for the routine and predictable.

The Unemployment Insurance Employer Handbook, published by the Kansas Department of Labor, explains how the rates that employers are charged for unemployment insurance premiums are determined. The rate is based on loss experience: “Experience rating helps ensure an equitable distribution of costs of the unemployment compensation program among employers. It is a procedure for varying employer rates and allocating costs of the Unemployment Insurance program in relation to the employer’s actual and potential risk with unemployment.” This is congruous with how many forms of insurance are priced. For example, drivers with bad driving records pay higher rates than those with good records, as their likelihood of future claims is greater, based on past experience.

So if the bill passes and bus drivers become eligible for unemployment benefits, we would expect the bus companies to have fairly high unemployment insurance rates. After all, they have many employees that would apply for and receive benefits on a regular basis. This higher insurance cost would be paid for by a private bus company. So is there an issue of public policy here?

First, I don’t know if the higher unemployment insurance rates the bus companies would pay would be sufficient to cover the cost of the unemployment insurance benefits the drivers receive. If not, then someone else — taxpayers — have to pay.

Second, who will really pay the bus companies’ higher unemployment insurance premiums? It’s likely the bus companies will try to pass along these higher costs to their customers. Those are primarily public schools, which, of course, are funded by taxpayers.

So yes, there is an issue of public policy. Costs will rise, and it appears that taxpayers will bear all, or nearly all, of the increase. There is the further consideration that an insurance program is converted into another entitlement program, again at taxpayer cost.

A possible solution is this: Schools may offer teachers an option to receive their pay during school months only, or spread across the entire twelve months of the year. Bus companies could do the same.

At risk school funding in Kansas

From Kansas Policy Institute.

At Risk School Funding 101

by David Dorsey

Note: this is the first blog in a series on the issue of at risk funding and accompanies a comprehensive KPI at risk research project.

Funding for public schools is a complicated proposition.

There are many factors that go into determining just how much money school districts will receive and where it will come from every year from state and local sources. There are property taxes, state equalization, local options, and so many more considerations that it takes 93 columns on the master spreadsheet used by the Kansas Department of Education to sort it all out! And that doesn’t even count federal money.

One piece of this funding puzzle is the “weighting” formula the state uses to adjust (increase) the amount of money that will go to each district based on certain characteristics of a) students (e.g. the number in vocational education) and b) the district (e.g. low or high enrollment). I presented the weighting formula in an earlier blog where you can see the formula in its entirety.

One part of that formula determines how much extra money goes to districts under the banner of “at risk.” So what is this at risk funding? It provides extra dollars to schools based on the number of economically disadvantaged students enrolled. It is rooted in a philosophy, and research has attempted to support, that it costs more to adequately educate poor students. That ideal is operationalized (quantified) by using the number of students who qualify for free lunch under the United States Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Some states also include the number of students who qualify for reduced lunch cost under NSLP. Nearly all states use the school lunch program in some form as a basis for determining their versions of at risk population.

This graphic shows how it works under current Kansas law. Base state aid per pupil (BSAPP) is $3,852. A student who qualifies for a free lunch is presently weighted at anadditional 45.6% of BSAPP and generates $5,609. (I say presently because at risk weightings have increased over time — more on that in the next blog.) Additionally, if more than half the students in a district are free lunch students a supplementary 10.5% weighting is added ($6,013). Currently, that applies to 57 of the state’s 286 school districts. One hundred four districts get a smaller, sliding scale additional percentage because they have between 35% and 50% at-risk students (more than $5,609 but less than $6,013). One hundred twenty five districts get no additional at risk money. Then, in order to determine the exact dollar amount a district will receive, the total weighted percentage is multiplied by the current BSAPP ($3,852 per pupil for 2015).

I told you it’s complicated.

Coincidentally, it is actually simpler than previous years because the legislature passed a law that eliminated a small at risk category in the 2014 session.

To show exactly how free lunch turns into at risk dollars, I present the following table that shows at risk funding for seven selected school districts that reveals the funding impact at risk dollars can have.

At risk data for selected districts, 2014-2015, from Kansas Policy Institute

Wichita, by far the biggest school district in the state, gets over $72 million per year. Pittsburg and Hays have virtually identical enrollments, but Pittsburg gets nearly $2.3 million more at risk money than Hays because Pittsburg has nearly twice the number of free lunch students, but more than twice as many weighted free lunch students. For the entire state the total at risk funding is just over $395 million.

That’s a lot of money, even in government terms.

One of the core issues associated with at risk funding is how it impacts student achievement, especially in light of the numerous and significant increases in at risk funding over the years (to be presented in the next blog). We will examine in depth what previous KPI research has shown to have limited positive effect.

Next: How did we get here? A look at the research and realities of additional funding for educating the economically disadvantaged.

Wichita schools seek to rebrand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas school finance case based on inadequate standards

The just-released Gannon school finance decision in Kansas concludes that not long ago Kansas schools were functioning adequately. But data on Kansas school standards says something else.

The court’s decision, in its conclusion, states: “At the beginning of FY 2009 (July l, 2008), the evidence established that the Kansas K-12 school system was functioning as a K-12 school system should in order to provide a constitutionally adequate education to Kansas children.”

It’s going to take some time to read and understand the decision, and even longer to see what effect it has on legislation, spending, and most importantly, the wellbeing of Kansas schoolchildren. It seems as though the court used student performance on Kansas state assessment data in making its decision. If so, that could be a problem. That’s because at a time when Kansas was spending more on schools due to an order from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state lowered its standards for schools. This is what the National Center for Education Statistics concluded about Kansas school standards in the most recent version of its report Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales. (NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations, and is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.)

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

Kansas school standards for grade 4 reading compared to other states. Click for larger version.
Kansas school standards for grade 4 reading compared to other states. Click for larger version.
For Kansas, here are some key findings. First, NCES asks this question: “How do Kansas’s NAEP scale equivalent scores of reading standards for proficient performance at grades 4 and 8 in 2009 compare with those estimated for 2005 and 2007?” For Kansas, the two answers are this (emphasis added):

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

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

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

More information about how NCES judged other Kansas standards may be found here. A video presentation may be viewed at Kansas school standards have changed.

This is not the only study of school testing standards that found that Kansas has low standards compared to other states. In another study, Kansas ranked forty-fourth among the states, meaning that seven states had standards judged to be weaker than Kansas’. The remainder of the states and the District of Columbia have stronger standards. The study also found that the Kansas standards have become weaker in recent years.

The Strength of State Proficiency Standards, excerpt for Kansas.
The Strength of State Proficiency Standards, excerpt for Kansas.
This research was published by Education Next, a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. It may be read at Despite Common Core, States Still Lack Common Standards: Students proficient on state tests but not national.

It’s important to note that this survey compares a state’s own standards to the NAEP test, which is the same for the entire country. It does not measure the performance of the students. Instead, it serves to compare the strength — and honesty — of a state’s test against a common standard:

Note that an A or a B does not indicate a relatively high performance by students in the state. Rather, it indicates that the state’s definition of proficient embodies higher expectations for students. It is best thought of as a high grade for “truth in advertising,” telling citizens frankly how well students are performing on an internationally accepted scale, just as states have pledged to do by joining the CCSS consortium.

Kansas standards are judged to be weak in two different assessments. Why would a Kansas court rely on these standards?

Kansans still uninformed on school spending

As in the past, a survey finds Kansans are uninformed or misinformed on the level of school spending, and also on the direction of its change.

This month Kansas Policy Institute produced a survey asking registered voters in Kansas questions on the topic of school spending. The first two questions measured the level of knowledge of Kansas school spending.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 1 asked: “How much state funding do you think Kansas school districts currently receive per pupil each year from JUST the state of Kansas?” As can be seen in the nearby table and chart, the most frequent response was less than $4,000 per year. 63 percent — nearly two-thirds — thought funding from the state was less than $5,000 per year.

The correct answer is that for the most recent school year (2013 — 2014) Kansas state funding per student was $7,088. This is estimated to rise to $8,604 for the current school year.

(The source of data for past school years is Kansas State Department of Education. Estimates for the current school year were obtained from Dale Dennis, who is Deputy Commissioner, Fiscal and Administrative Services.)

In the last school year base state aid per pupil was $3,838. How, then, does the state spend $7,088 per pupil? The answer is that various weightings are applied for things like bilingual education and at-risk pupils.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 2 asked about funding from all sources: “How much funding per pupil do you think Kansas school districts currently receive from ALL taxpayer sources per year, including State, Federal and Local taxpayers? The most common answer was less than $7,000. Two-thirds answered less than $10,000.

The correct answer is per-pupil spending from all sources for the 2013 — 2014 school year was $12,960. The estimate for the current school year is $13,268.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 3 asked about the change in school funding: “Over the last 4 years, how much do you think total per-pupil funding has changed?” 65 percent — nearly two-thirds — thought spending had fallen over this period. Only 14 percent thought spending had risen, and only seven percent by more than five percent. That last category holds the correct answer, which is 8.02 percent.

The findings of these three questions, which are that people are generally uninformed as to the level of school spending, are not able produce estimates that are in the same ballpark of actual values, and are wrong on the direction of change of spending, are not surprising. Past versions of similar surveys in Kansas have produced similar results. It’s not just a Kansas problem, as similar findings are found across the nation.

Commenting on the survey, KPI president Dave Trabert remarked:

It is impossible for citizens to develop informed opinions on education funding and state budget issues without accurate information. We continue to see that citizens who are accurately informed on K-12 funding have significantly different opinions than those who believe school funding is much lower than reality.” The number of Kansans who can correctly answer this question remains disturbingly low, but knowing how frequently funding is misrepresented by education officials and special interests, it’s not surprising. Instead of trying to low-ball school funding to justify increased aid, the focus should be on improving outcomes.

Kansans are providing record funding levels that exceed adjustments for enrollment and inflation over the last ten years, but outcomes on independent national assessments are relatively unchanged. It will always cost a lot of money to provide public education but the data shows that it’s how the money is spent that matters — not how much. “Just spend more” is about funding institutions. The focus needs to shift to getting more of the record-setting funding into classrooms where it will best help students.

Legislators and citizens cannot make good decisions about the challenges facing the state without good information. This survey confirms what we’ve known previously: Kansans are being misinformed and that cannot lead to good decision making. We encourage legislators and others to honestly examine facts without political bias. No finger pointing … no attempts to score political points … and no shading the facts … just civil discussion of the issues and facts.

A press release announcing the survey is New Survey: Kansans Remain Misinformed Regarding K-12 Finance. The results of the survey from SurveyUSA are here.

The problem with government spending

Of interest is that when people make major — or even minor — purchases, many will expend considerable effort researching the possibilities. Spending their own money, automobile purchasers want to get a good deal on a car that meets their preferences. That’s human nature.

But every two years, taxpayers spend on each student the amount that will buy a nice new car. In four years, taxpayers spend enough on each student to buy a new luxury car. The average taxpayer doesn’t pay that much tax for schools. But collectively, we all do.

The lack of knowledge of government spending reminds me of a passage from Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, written by Rose and Milton Friedman. It explains why government spending is wasteful, how it leads to corruption, how it often does not benefit the people it was intended, and how the pressure for more spending is always present. Spending on public schools falls in either category III — spending someone else’s money on yourself (or your children) — or category IV — spending someone else’s money on someone else. It’s no wonder it hasn’t worked very well.

Here’s a passage from Free to Choose.

A simple classification of spending shows why that process leads to undesirable results. When you spend, you may spend your own money or someone else’s; and you may spend for the benefit of yourself or someone else. Combining these two pairs of alternatives gives four possibilities summarized in the following simple table:

friedman-spending-categories-2013-07

Category I in the table refers to your spending your own money on yourself. You shop in a supermarket, for example. You clearly have a strong incentive both to economize and to get as much value as you can for each dollar you do spend.

Category II refers to your spending your own money on someone else. You shop for Christmas or birthday presents. You have the same incentive to economize as in Category I but not the same incentive to get full value for your money, at least as judged by the tastes of the recipient. You will, of course, want to get something the recipient will like — provided that it also makes the right impression and does not take too much time and effort. (If, indeed, your main objective were to enable the recipient to get as much value as possible per dollar, you would give him cash, converting your Category II spending to Category I spending by him.)

Category III refers to your spending someone else’s money on yourself — lunching on an expense account, for instance. You have no strong incentive to keep down the cost of the lunch, but you do have a strong incentive to get your money’s worth.

Category IV refers to your spending someone else’s money on still another person. You are paying for someone else’s lunch out of an expense account. You have little incentive either to economize or to try to get your guest the lunch that he will value most highly. However, if you are having lunch with him, so that the lunch is a mixture of Category III and Category IV, you do have a strong incentive to satisfy your own tastes at the sacrifice of his, if necessary.

All welfare programs fall into either Category III — for example, Social Security which involves cash payments that the recipient is free to spend as he may wish; or Category IV — for example, public housing; except that even Category IV programs share one feature of Category III, namely, that the bureaucrats administering the program partake of the lunch; and all Category III programs have bureaucrats among their recipients.

In our opinion these characteristics of welfare spending are the main source of their defects.

Legislators vote to spend someone else’s money. The voters who elect the legislators are in one sense voting to spend their own money on themselves, but not in the direct sense of Category I spending. The connection between the taxes any individual pays and the spending he votes for is exceedingly loose. In practice, voters, like legislators, are inclined to regard someone else as paying for the programs the legislator votes for directly and the voter votes for indirectly. Bureaucrats who administer the programs are also spending someone else’s money. Little wonder that the amount spent explodes.

The bureaucrats spend someone else’s money on someone else. Only human kindness, not the much stronger and more dependable spur of self-interest, assures that they will spend the money in the way most beneficial to the recipients. Hence the wastefulness and ineffectiveness of the spending.

But that is not all. The lure of getting someone else’s money is strong. Many, including the bureaucrats administering the programs, will try to get it for themselves rather than have it go to someone else. The temptation to engage in corruption, to cheat, is strong and will not always be resisted or frustrated. People who resist the temptation to cheat will use legitimate means to direct the money to themselves. They will lobby for legislation favorable to themselves, for rules from which they can benefit. The bureaucrats administering the programs will press for better pay and perquisites for themselves — an outcome that larger programs will facilitate.

The attempt by people to divert government expenditures to themselves has two consequences that may not be obvious. First, it explains why so many programs tend to benefit middle- and upper-income groups rather than the poor for whom they are supposedly intended. The poor tend to lack not only the skills valued in the market, but also the skills required to be successful in the political scramble for funds. Indeed, their disadvantage in the political market is likely to be greater than in the economic. Once well-meaning reformers who may have helped to get a welfare measure enacted have gone on to their next reform, the poor are left to fend for themselves and they will almost always he overpowered by the groups that have already demonstrated a greater capacity to take advantage of available opportunities.

The second consequence is that the net gain to the recipients of the transfer will be less than the total amount transferred. If $100 of somebody else’s money is up for grabs, it pays to spend up to $100 of your own money to get it. The costs incurred to lobby legislators and regulatory authorities, for contributions to political campaigns, and for myriad other items are a pure waste — harming the taxpayer who pays and benefiting no one. They must be subtracted from the gross transfer to get the net gain — and may, of course, at times exceed the gross transfer, leaving a net loss, not gain.

These consequences of subsidy seeking also help to explain the pressure for more and more spending, more and more programs. The initial measures fail to achieve the objectives of the well-meaning reformers who sponsored them. They conclude that not enough has been done and seek additional programs. They gain as allies both people who envision careers as bureaucrats administering the programs and people who believe that they can tap the money to be spent.

Category IV spending tends also to corrupt the people involved. All such programs put some people in a position to decide what is good for other people. The effect is to instill in the one group a feeling of almost God-like power; in the other, a feeling of childlike dependence. The capacity of the beneficiaries for independence, for making their own decisions, atrophies through disuse. In addition to the waste of money, in addition to the failure to achieve the intended objectives, the end result is to rot the moral fabric that holds a decent society together.

Another by-product of Category III or IV spending has the same effect. Voluntary gifts aside, you can spend someone else’s money only by taking it away as government does. The use of force is therefore at the very heart of the welfare state — a bad means that tends to corrupt the good ends. That is also the reason why the welfare state threatens our freedom so seriously.

Kansas school teacher cuts, student ratios

What has been the trend in Kansas school employment and pupil-teacher ratio?

“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.

Here’s the data, fresh from Kansas State Department of Education. Can you show me where there has been a reduction in teachers, or a rise in the ratio of pupils to teachers? (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 — if, in fact, they are.)

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

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 spending visualization updated

visualization-example-small

There’s new data available from Kansas State Department of Education on school spending. I’ve gathered the data, adjusted it for the consumer price index, and now present it in this interactive visualization.

Click here to open the visualization in a new window.

Kansas school spending, per pupil
Kansas school spending, per pupil
Kansas school spending, per pupil
Kansas school spending, per pupil

Kansas school spending and achievement

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Kansas school spending and achievement

Kansas school fund balances

Kansas school fund balances declined this year, but fund balances are still large.

As Kansas voters consider school funding, as the Kansas Supreme Court considers ordering more school spending, and as school spending boosters insisting that school spending has been slashed, an inconvenient fact remains constant: Kansas schools don’t spend all the money they’ve been given. Fund balances have been growing until leveling off and dipping slightly this year.

I’ve gathered data about unspent Kansas school funds and presented it as an interactive visualization. You may explore the data yourself by using the visualization. Click here to open the visualization in a new window. Data is from Kansas State Department of Education. Visualization created using Tableau Public.

Unspent Kansas school fund balances. All funds on top; all funds less bond and capital below.
Unspent Kansas school fund balances. All funds on top; all funds less bond and capital below.

Kansas schools shortchanged

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 week 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 to 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 school claims, numbers don’t match

Kansas school spending advocates make claims of exploding class sizes that aren’t reflected in enrollment and employment data.

Mill Creek Elementary class size claim from FacebookOn Facebook, an activist makes a claim that, if accurate, is alarming:

I walked with Paul Davis yesterday. I introduced him to Mrs. Scrutin. She teaches 4th grade at Mill Creek Elementary, here in Lenexa. She has seen class sizes explode from 16, to 23, now for the 2014-2015 school year 30.

I gathered data from the Kansas State Department of Education and created an interactive visualization. (I’m not making the visualization available just yet, as there are some data consistency issues I need to address, and I hope to receive data for additional years.)

Looking at data for Mill Creek Elementary in the Shawnee Mission School District, the number of certified employees and K-12 teachers at the school has been falling. In 2014 there were 21 K-12 teachers, down from 27 in 2009.

Enrollment, too, has been on the decline, from 443 students in 2009 to 368 in 2014. The pupil-teacher ratio in 2009 was 16.2. It reached 17.1 two years later, and in another two years it fell to 16.4, and rose to 17.9 for 2014.

Pupil-teacher ratio is not equivalent to class size. It is simply the number of pupils divided by the number of teachers. Class sizes could be larger or smaller, and may vary from room to room. Although the pupil-teacher ratio rose for Mill Creek Elementary, let’s place it in context. For a hypothetical school of 1,000 students, the change that Mill Creek experienced from 2009 to 2014 means going from 62 teachers to 56 teachers.

With Mill Creek’s pupil-teacher ratio remaining almost unchanged, how do class sizes “explode from 16, to 23, now for the 2014-2015 school year 30?”

I don’t have data for the 2014-2015 school year. But if class sizes are “exploding” at the same time the pupil-teacher ratio rose only slightly, what is the explanation?

Remember, K-12 teachers are not the only employees at this school. In 2009 there were also 31 certified employees in addition to K-12 teachers. That number is down to 24 for 2014. In terms of pupil-employee ratios, the change over this time has been from 14.3 pupils per certified employee to 15.3.

Mill Creek Elementary school data

Kansas base state aid is only a part of spending

Using base state aid per pupil as the only measure of school funding leads to an incomplete understanding of school spending in Kansas.

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

Base state aid per pupil has fallen in recent years. Public school spending advocates want Kansans to be aware of only this fact. For them, only this number is important.

But Kansas schools have much more to spend than just base state aid.

Ratios of school spending to base state aid.
Ratios of school spending to base state aid.
In the last school year base state aid per pupil was $3,838. But in that year total spending funded by Kansas state sources was $6,984 per pupil, or 1.82 times base state aid. Adding local and federal sources, spending was $12,781 per student, or 3.33 times base state aid.

As shown in the nearby chart, there has been a steady increase in measures of school spending when compared to base state aid.

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

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

What’s important to realize is that the nature of Kansas school funding has changed in a way that makes base state aid per pupil less important as a measure of school spending.

In Wichita, the attitude of some elected officials needs adjustment

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Attitudes of Wichita government leaders towards capitalism reveal a lack of understanding. Is only a government-owned hotel able to make capital improvements? Then, two examples of the disdain elected officials express towards their constituents who don’t agree with them. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Alternatives to raising taxes, how to become involved in politics, and bad behavior by elected officials

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita voters tell pollsters that they prefer alternatives to raising taxes. Then, how can you get involved in politics? A deadline is approaching soon. Finally, some examples of why we need to elect better people to office. Episode 44, broadcast May 25, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

More parents unhappy with treatment by the Wichita school board

apple-chalkboard-booksKAKE Television reports on Wichita parents who are not happy with treatment by the school board, writing “Parents associated with Hyde tell KAKE News it’s not the decision that’s leaving a bad taste in their mouth. They’re unhappy with how the Wichita Board of Education treated them during the process.” Wichita Eagle reporting on this matter is at Wichita school board votes to transfer two teachers from Hyde Elementary.

A contributor to the newspaper’s Opinion Line wrote: “While I’m disappointed in the decision by the Wichita school board, I am simply stunned at the lack of respect Lynn Rogers afforded a fellow board member, Joy Eakins. His condescension toward her was palpable, and his remark to ‘roll your eyes if you like’ was both rude and unprofessional.”

This is not the first time citizens have suffered in this way. When a person like Lynn Rogers and most other school board members believe that they are totally responsible for — and the only reason why — any education takes place in Wichita, superciliousness and insularity are occupational hazards.

Another example is Wichita school board: critics not welcome, where I concluded “This is characteristic of this board and the entire district. They’re willing to accept citizen input when citizens agree with them. Otherwise, watch out.”

This board meeting public Betty ArnoldWhen she was president of the board of USD 259 Betty Arnold let citizens know the real purpose of board meetings, and how citizens should behave. At a meeting, citizens had criticized the board for large and important issues, but also for such mundane things as the amount of the superintendent’s monthly car allowance. Arnold admonished citizens for speaking about things like this in public. It’s not respectful, she said.

Finally, after directing a uniformed security guard to station himself near a citizen speaker, Arnold told the audience: “If we need to clear the room, we will clear the room. This board meeting is being held in public, but it is not for the public, or of the public. And I hope you understand that.”

Video of Arnold is below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita’s benchmark not applicable to overlapping jurisdictions, it seems

Wichita Economic DevelopmentThe City of Wichita insists on a certain level of return on investment for its economic development incentives, but doesn’t apply that criteria to overlapping jurisdictions.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider an economic development incentive to a company. The council requires that incentive projects show a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or greater, meaning that the city expects to gain $1.30 or more for every dollar it invests in the incentive program.

For the project the city will consider on May 6, that threshold is met for the city’s general and debt service funds, and also for Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas. But for USD 259, the Wichita public school district, the benefit-cost ratio is 1.23 to one. That’s below the criteria the city requires for itself, although the policy contains many exceptions.

The program used to deliver this incentive is Economic Development Exemption (EDX) . It provides relief from property taxes based on a formula that considers job creation and capital investment. In this case, the company qualifies for a 93.25 percent real property tax exemption for up to ten years. Not 92 percent, and not 94 percent. Instead, the city has determined that precisely 93.25 percent is the correct amount of property tax exemption to be awarded. (Which reminds me of the saying that economists use a decimal point now and then to remind us they have a sense of humor.)

Furthermore, the decision to award the tax exemption is made solely by the City of Wichita. The other taxing jurisdictions have no say in the matter and no ability to object. So while Wichita requires a benefit-cost ratio of 1.3 to one or better, it’s saddling the Wichita school district with a benefit-cost ratio of 1.23 to one.

This is all the more meaningful when we consider that the Wichita school district is the largest participant in the incentive. The amount of tax revenue the school district is giving up — perhaps against its will — is almost as large as the city, county, and state put together. These are the amounts of foregone tax revenue for each jurisdiction, according to city documents.

City $14,096
State $651
County $12,738
USD 259 $24,810

Perhaps it’s time to consider laws in Kansas that would allow counties, school districts, and the state to opt out of economic development incentive decisions made by cities.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Newspaper editorial writers on how democracy works, Kansas school test scores.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: An editorial in a Kansas newspaper exposes a dangerously uninformed and simplistic view of politics and democracy. Then, will Kansas school leaders and newspapers tell us the hidden truths about Kansas school test scores? Episode 41, broadcast May 4, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

CBPP on Kansas schools and taxes, part 2

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Debunking CBPP on tax reform and school funding — Part 2

By Dave Trabert

We continue our debunking of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) latest report entitled “Lessons for Other States from Kansas’ Massive Tax Cuts.” Part 1 dealt with state revenues. Today we debunk their claims on school funding and other state services.

CBPP claim #2 — School funding is 17 percent below pre-recession levels and funding for other services is way down and declining.

This is simply an outright fabrication — and not the first time that CBPP has done so. CBPP shows a graph of how they calculate what they claim is a reduction in school funding but, true to form, they provide no supporting data. The only source provided says “CBPP analysis of state budget documents and Kansas Governor’s Budget Reports.” CBPP routinely plays this game and they have refused to give us their data every time we requested it. I’ll get to school funding shortly but let’s start debunking this claim with a total spending review.

Here are the facts from the Governor’s Budget Reports cited by CBPP.[1] General Fund spending would decline a mere 1.8 percent this year (FY 2014) but it is still 6.3% higher than just three years ago. Next year, Kansas will set a new record for General Fund spending without even counting the education money that was just added to next year’s budget. Fiscal year 2013 was the highest level of General Fund spending on record.

The next table breaks total spending down into the primary functions listed in the Governor’s Budget Reports.

Of course, Kansas should have reduced spending last year and this year rather than spend down reserves but the fact remains that spending is not “way down and declining” as claimed by CBPP.

Their bogus claim on school funding may be grounded in an earlier collection of falsehoods published last year — and thoroughly debunked on this blog. CBPP often makes unsubstantiated claims which they attribute to their “analysis of data” but the data is not made available for review — even when requested.

The first thing to understand is that CBPP deliberately misleads readers by only talking about state funding of schools while ignoring the fact that Kansas, like many states, has a foundational funding formula that provides multiple funding sources, including local money that does not flow through the state budget.

But that is just the beginning of the deception. Their statement that “Kansas is still cutting school funding” on page four of their report is an outright lie.

This data provided by the Kansas Department of Education shows that State funding of public education has increased for four consecutive years.[2]  As CBPP is fully aware, one cannot get the full picture of school funding in state budget documents; the money reported as Local funding is provided on state authority but doesn’t run through the state budget.[3] Property taxes (including the 20 mills mandated by the Legislature) are sent directly to school districts by county treasurers.[4] Even the Kansas Supreme Court acknowledged (three weeks before CBPP’s report) that “… funds from all available resources, including grants and federal assistance, should be considered” when evaluating school funding.[5]

The following inflation comparisons are based on total school funding from the adjacent chart and shown on a per-pupil basis to also account for enrollment changes. The first comparison shows that actual school funding continues to run well ahead of inflation. Per-pupil funding increased from $6,985 per-pupil in 1998 to $12,781 in 2013; 1998 funding adjusted for inflation would be only $9,768. (Funding for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System was not included in KSDE calculations of school funding until 2005; they provided the data for prior years and we adjusted spending accordingly.)


CBPP claims that school funding has not kept up with inflation since 2008 but that is misleading at best. Again, they provided no data to support their claim but we’ll lay it all out here.

Note that every chart shown above references “spending” instead of “funding.” KSDE arrives at their Local number each by subtracting State and Federal aid from districts’ reports of total expenditures. Total expenditures is different from total funding because districts report on a cash-basis fund accounting method and those figures do not reflect any aid received that was not spent. That information can be obtained by comparing the change in ending unencumbered cash balances of districts’ operating funds (excluding capital and debt).[6]

The above table shows that total inflation-adjusted spending between 2008 and 2013 was $85.3 million greater than actual spending, but districts could have spent $345.9 million more if they had used all of the aid provided during those years.

It should also be noted that school spending is not based on what schools need to meet required outcomes while also making efficient use of taxpayer money. To this day, not a single superintendent, legislator, KSDE employee, policy analyst or judge can identify that amount because no such analysis has been performed in Kansas. The cost study upon which previous court rulings were made was found to be deliberately skewed so as to provide the courts with inflated numbers.[7] The Kansas Supreme Court also recently abandoned the “actual cost” method of determining adequate funding in Gannon and substituted new standards (Rose), against which no cost or funding measurement has been conducted.[8]

In conclusion, CBPP’s claims about school funding in particular and state funding of services in general are merely a collection of false, misleading and inconsequential statements.

Kansas does need to reduce spending a bit in the coming years in preparation for the next tranche of tax reduction but there is ample ability to do so without reducing current services. There are tax transfers out of the General Fund that should be reconsidered and there are also multiple opportunities to significantly reduce the cost of providing current services.

The opportunities are there, and we’ll cover them separately in the coming months. The only question is whether Governor Brownback and a majority of legislators will stand up to the bureaucracy and special interests.
Stay tuned for Part 3.


[1] Kansas Division of the Budget, Governor’s Budget Report for FY 2015 published January, 2014, page 22 at http://budget.ks.gov/publications/FY2015/FY2015_GBR_Vol1–UPDATED–01-28-2014.pdf
[2] Kansas Department of Education; school years 2003-04 through 2012-13 located at http://www.ksde.org/Portals/0/School%20Finance/data_warehouse/total_expenditures/d0Stateexp.pdf. All other years provided by KSDE via email; copies in author’s possession.
[3] CBPP published a response to my September 13, 2013 blog post that provided this explanation. http://www.offthechartsblog.org/the-price-of-kansas-costly-tax-cuts/
[4] Explanation of property tax distribution with a quote from Dale Dennis at http://www.kansaspolicy.org/KPIBlog/Default.aspx?min=2013-01-01&max=2014-01-01.
[5] Gannon v. State of Kansas, page 77 at http://www.kscourts.org/Cases-and-Opinions/opinions/SupCt/2014/20140307/109335.pdf
[6] See KSDE explanation at the link for Endnote #2.
[7] Caleb Stegall, “Analysis of Montoy v. State of Kansas” published by Kansas Policy Institute in 2009 at http://www.kansaspolicy.org/ResearchCenters/Education/Studies/d65168.aspx?type=view
[8] Ibid, pages 76 and 77.

Kansas school spending, contrary to Paul Davis

Claims about school spending made by a Kansas Democratic Party leader don’t quite align with facts.

It is commonplace for liberal Kansas politicians and newspaper editorial pages to complain about severely cut spending on schools in Kansas. A recent example is Paul Davis in the Wichita Eagle.

kansas-school-spending-per-student-2013-10-chart-01Nearby is a chart of Kansas school spending (click it for a larger version). It’s adjusted for inflation. Spending is not as high as it was at its peak, but Davis’ claim of students who “have experienced severe budget cuts” don’t match the facts.

Now, it’s possible that Davis may want readers to consider only a portion of school spending, that being base state aid per pupil. It’s the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula, and therefore an important number.

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

In the last school year base state aid per pupil was $3,838. That’s the figure often used as the level of school spending. But in that year total Kansas state spending per pupil $6,984, or 1.82 times base state aid. Adding local and federal sources, spending was $12,781 per student, or 3.33 times base state aid.

Considering Kansas state spending only, the ratio of state spending to base state aid was 1.10 in 1998. By 2013 that ratio had risen to 1.82, an increase of 65 percent for the ratio. For total spending, the ratio rose from 1.86 to 3.33 over the same period, an increase of 79 percent.

What’s important to realize is that the nature of Kansas school funding has changed in a way that makes base state aid per pupil less important as an indicator of school spending.

Kansas Judicial Center
Kansas Judicial Center
The Kansas Supreme Court had something to say about this in its recent Gannon opinion that sent part of the case back to the lower court with instructions: All funding sources are to be considered: “In the panel’s assessment, funds from all available resources, including grants and federal assistance, should be considered.”

I wonder: Those who call for a return to the level of base state aid of 20 years ago (adjusted for inflation, of course): Would they also accept returning to the same ratios of total spending to base state aid?

Kansas news media should report, not spin

kansas-policy-institute-logoA Hutchinson News editorial contained an uninformed opinion of which special interest groups are working for the best interests of Kansans. Following, Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute explains that influence may be shifting from media, unions, the education establishment, cities, counties, and school boards to those with different views — those of limited government and economic freedom that empower citizens, not an expansive government and its beneficiaries. The editorial referred to is Goodbye Democracy, Hello Wealthocracy.

Media spin a threat

By Dave Trabert

Kansans are bombarded with claims that range from innocently incomplete to quite deliberately false. Increasingly, the media perpetrates this bad information. That behavior limits civil discourse and is a serious threat to personal freedom and our democratic republic.

Media should use its powerful voice to provide unbiased information. Instead, we see a growing trend in Kansas media to distort the truth, ignore facts and attack those who disagree with their view of the world. A recent Hutchinson News editorial is an example of this petulant behavior.

The basic premise of “Goodbye Democracy, Hello Wealthocracy” is that elected officials are chosen and kept in line by special interest groups. The author allows that moneyed interests work both sides of the aisle in Washington and in other states but incredibly asserts that this is not the case in Kansas. He says, “Here, the GOP rules, and the split is between those who labor for their constituents and those who pledge allegiance to their sponsors.”

Even casual political observers know that to be laughably false. Republicans have a paper majority, but even cub reporters know it is meaningless. KPI’s Economic Freedom Index has consistently found Republicans at the top and bottom of rankings based on their votes for economic and educational freedom.

The dividing line is not party affiliations or labels like liberal, moderate or conservative. Rather, it’s a philosophical belief in the role of government and collectivism versus the personal liberty of individuals.

There is no such thing as a “wealthocracy,” but special interest groups do influence politics. Claiming this to be the exclusive province of Kansans with a limited government perspective, however, is a conscious lie.

The behaviors attributed to the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity (recruiting and financially supporting friendly candidates for public office and encouraging elected officials to see things their way) are equally attributable to public employee unions, school board associations and others with big-government views. “Laboring for constituents” is a Hutchinson News euphemism for upholding the self-serving ideals of KNEA, KASB, state employee unions and other institutional interests.

There is nothing wrong, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, about special interests attempting to influence government. The difference — and perhaps the real objection of The Hutchinson News — is that their “side” is losing its long-standing monopoly over information and, with it, heavy influence over government and citizens.

The Kansas Policy Institute is perhaps the leading provider in Kansas of factual information on school funding and student achievement. Our information often differs from that published by media, unions and the education establishment, but they are facts nonetheless.

The editorial said, “… few lobbyists dominate like the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Policy Institute.” We’re flattered to be considered a dominant force, but the editorial conveniently didn’t mention other dominant players, including cities, counties, school boards and unions. The objection is not to our dominance; it’s that we don’t share the big-government/collectivist perspective of The Hutchinson News.

We call that hypocrisy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider these circumstances:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Education is all about money and politics for UMEEA

By Dave Trabert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas values, applied to schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas school employment ratios

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

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

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

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

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

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