Topeka, Kansas — At today’s meeting of the Kansas House Appropriations Committee, Walt Chappell presented ideas on increasing efficiency and reducing cost in Kansas schools.
Chappell, a Democrat from Wichita, was elected to the Kansas State Board of Education last year. He has 40 years varied experience as a businessman, former science teacher, college and university faculty, administrator, and education budget director. His testimony today was presented as his own, and he traveled to Topeka to present it at his own expense.
Here is a summary of the ideas he presented to the members of the committee:
First, remove restrictions on the way that school fund balances can be used. As of July 1, Kansas schools carried a balance of $1.5 billion in various funds. About $700 million of this is in operating fund accounts, which represents an increase of 53% in four years. This money could be spent, or alternatively, the rate of contribution to the funds could be reduced. According to Chappell: “This means that the cuts which must be made to K-12 education will have minimal impact on instruction and eliminate any need to raise taxes or increase funding. It is best to use money already in the bank rather than ask for more during these tough economic times.”
Second, reduce the number of school districts. Chappell says that $300 million a year could be saved by merging the 296 Kansas school districts into about 40 districts, each with 10,000 or more students. 252 of Kansas school districts (85%) have fewer that 2,000 students. It’s not cost-effective, according to Chappell.
The larger school districts will make more efficient use of administrators, teachers, transportation, maintenance, and purchasing power. Better use of existing facilities will result.
Third, increase the productivity of K-12 teachers and college faculty. Chappell says that each K-12 teacher must be in the school building not less than eight hours per day: “A full day’s work for a full day’s pay.” Teachers should teach at least six class periods, and then remain in the building to grade papers, hold parent-teacher conferences, help students who are having problems, and attend in-service training.
One of the benefits of this will be the need to reduce in-service days, which, according to Chappell, “cost millions of dollars with questionable improvements in instruction.” This emphasis on productivity is needed, he said, because 80% of budgets goes to personnel.
Fourth, place a temporary hold for two years on the state matching funding for school bond projects. Chappell held up one of the “25%” buttons used to promote the Wichita school bond issue last year. That number refers to the portion of bond spending that the state would pay. He made the point that voters outside the Wichita school district, for example, didn’t have the chance to vote on whether they wanted to help the Wichita district build new facilities.
He also said that many of these building projects have low instructional value.
Fifth, there should be “pay to play” for K-12 varsity sports. Chappell said that three to four percent of Kansas K-12 spending goes to varsity athletics, while at the same time only one percent goes to vocational education to teach students employable skills. Which is more important? Sports boosters and parents of student athletes need to pay the extra costs of athletics.
Sixth, change the definition of an at-risk student. Currently, the definition of at-risk is based on the parents’ income. But this is an artificial measure, Chappell says, that has nothing to do with a child’s ability to learn, so this weighting in the school funding formula needs to be changed.
In total, Chappell said that these measures would save $500 million each year, and school districts would have more flexibility.
Questions from the committee members included these:
A questioner said that in all his information, Chappell didn’t mention quality of education or student achievement. Chappell responded that in larger, regional school districts, teachers would have fewer preparations, and teachers would be able to concentrate on what they do best. He also said we should concentrate on building facilities that would teach students employable skills — vocational education — rather than things like swimming pools.
A question about consolidation brought out the point that most of the talk about consolidation has been along the lines of merging two small districts, creating one still small district. This type of consolidation won’t produce the savings we need to realize. With larger consolidation, some schools might need to be closed, but savings could be on the order of $1,500 to $2,000 per student, per year, which is a great deal of money across the state. Chappell added that some school districts are so strapped for funds that they won’t be able to survive much longer on their own.
Another question asked how many certified teachers working in Kansas school districts do not teach students. Chappell replied that this is a new concept, the mentor or teacher coach, and there’s a lot of money spent on this.
The issue of large unencumbered fund balances in Kansas school districts is starting to receive the attention it deserves, although school spending advocates are not pleased, with Kansas Watchdog reporting one Kansas state board of education member recently saying “Please, lets stop talking about $1.3 billion in unencumbered funds.” (That’s last year’s number, as this year it has grown to $1.5 billion.) It’s uncontested, however, that these fund balances are growing, which is evidence that schools have been collecting more money than they have been spending. These balances are not spread uniformly across school districts, however. More information about this can be found at Extra money in Kansas school funds could help with budget.
School consolidation in Kansas is often portrayed as an issue affecting primarily sparsely-populated areas in western Kansas, where consolidation may mean that students would have to travel long distances to a reduced number of schools. Speaking with Chappell afterwards, I learned that Ellis county has seven school districts. There’s no good reason, he said, why these districts can’t merge.
Chappell’s idea that teachers should spend eight hours in the school building was met with resistance from two committee members in their questions. Often the debate on school funding is cast by school spending advocates as a war against teachers. Chappell wants to make better use of labor and school facility resources so that more time can be spent on instruction.
A link to Chappell’s testimony is Kansas School Testimony by Walt Chappell 2009-11-23.