As the Kansas primary election nears, candidates vie to see who is the “education candidate.” It’s part of the theme of the so-called “moderate” Republicans — that they follow a tradition of “reasonableness” that, they say, is characteristic of successful Kansas politicians — the “traditional” Republicans.
Others call for a “balanced” approach to government and “responsible tax reform.” Senate President Steve Morris contributes an op-ed in support of “incumbent senators who put their local communities above the agendas of these special interest groups.”
But when we look at Kansas schools, we find that most of the debate centers on school funding, with some candidates forecasting that public schools will be “devastated” as a result of recent Kansas tax reform.
Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), the state’s teachers union, is a large player in determining who are the “education candidates.” But when examined closely, anyone can see that the union’s concern is money and teachers, not the schoolchildren of Kansas. KNEA is precisely the type of special interest group that Morris warns against, but Morris and the Republicans branding themselves as “reasonable” aren’t able to see that.
An example of how KNEA functions as a special interest group is its public relations campaign titled “Behind Every Great Student is a Great Public School Teacher.” But what about the great Kansas students who go to private or church schools, or who are homeschooled? The answer is that KNEA cares nothing about these students, as they are taught by teachers who aren’t union members.
A look at KNEA endorsements tells us that the union endorses and supports candidates who will increase spending on schools while at the same time blocking accountability measures and spreading misinformation about Kansas school spending and student achievement. When we consider the effects on Kansas schoolchildren, we start to realize the impact of this special interest group and the politicians and bureaucrats that enable it.
Kansas school spending
The union’s raison d’etre is to increase spending of tax dollars on public schools, insisting that there have been huge cuts in school funding that will lead to diminished student achievement. Kansas school district spending, however, has been rising rapidly for decades. From 1997 to 2010, for example, after accounting for inflation, Kansas state spending per pupil on schools increased by 18 percent. When all sources of funding are included, spending per pupil was up by 32 percent, again after inflation is taken into consideration.
If more money is the answer, the problem would have been solved long ago.
KNEA and many of the purported education candidates won’t even admit to the amount of spending on schools in Kansas. Their focus is on base state aid per pupil, which has declined in recent years. But that’s just part of the spectrum of total spending on schools, and the total has been increasing. The focus solely on base state aid is misleading — a statistical accident that is convenient for KNEA lobbyist Mark Desetti and school spending boosters. It lets them present a picture of Kansas school spending that is accurate but deceptive, both at the same time. Other school leaders like Wichita superintendent John Allison do the same.
Voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates why it is so difficult to recognize the entirety of public school spending.
Kansas student achievement
The education candidates promote the success of Kansas public schools. Scores on Kansas tests are rising — “jumping,” in the recent words of Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker. But scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for Kansas students don’t reflect the same trend. Scores on this test, which is given every two years, aren’t rising like the Kansas-controlled test scores.
Voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates why we don’t have an accurate state assessment of students.
Kansas “education candidates” will point to Kansas’ overall high scores on the NAEP. It’s true: Looking at the gross scores, Kansas does well, compared to other states. But you don’t have to look very hard to realize that these scores are a statistical accident. It’s an unfortunate fact that minority students do not perform as well on these tests as white students. When you combine this with the fact that Kansas has a relatively small minority population, we can see why Kansas ranks well.
Compare Kansas with Texas, a state that Kansas school spending boosters like to deride as a state with low-performing schools. In Kansas 69 percent of students are white, while in Texas that number is 33 percent. So it’s not surprising that overall, Kansas outperforms Texas (with one tie) when considering all students in four important areas: fourth and eighth grade reading, and fourth and eighth grade math.
But looking at Hispanic students only, Texas beats or ties Kansas in these four areas. For black students, Texas bests Kansas in all four. Texas does this with much less spending per pupil than Kansas.
Kansas voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates if they are aware of these facts.
Kansas school accountability
The Kansas teachers union its stable of education candidates have also been successful in shielding teachers from meaningful evaluation and accountability for on-the-job performance. As part of the waiver from the No Child Left Behind ACT that Kansas recently received, evaluations of teachers will be changing. The Kansas State Department of Education announced: “Another key component of the state’s waiver is related to evaluating teachers and school leaders. Among the criteria for achieving a waiver request was implementing an evaluation system that includes student achievement as a significant factor in the evaluation. The Kansas plan calls for appointing a commission to identify the most effective means of tying student achievement to teacher and leader evaluations and building that into the existing Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol (KEEP).”
KEEP is an evaluation system that was first used in the last school year on a pilot basis. But according to Peter Hancock of Kansas Education Policy Report, KEEP does not currently have a component that includes student achievement.
Many people would be surprised to learn that student achievement has not been the primary factor used in evaluating teachers in Kansas. This is one of the reasons why Kansas has been found to rank low in policies on teacher quality.
Again, voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates why student achievement has not been a component of teacher evaluation.
Kansas school standards
The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has analyzed state standards. The table of figures is available at Estimated NAEP scale equivalent scores for state proficiency standards, for reading and mathematics in 2009, by grade and state.
The conclusion by NCES is “… most states’ proficiency standards are at or below NAEP’s definition of Basic performance.” An analysis of the NCES data found that Kansas is one of those states, with its reading proficiency standard set lower than what the U.S. Department of Education considers basic performance. Math proficiency levels are above what NAEP considers to be basic but still well below the U.S. standard for proficient.
Voters need to ask those who claim to be education candidates if they are aware of this poor showing by Kansas, and if so, why have they allowed it to persist.
There’s more: Opposing charter schools and school choice, opposition to improving teacher quality policies, insisting that schools fund balances can’t be used, insisting on lockstep salary scales that pay teachers more for things that don’t help students, opposing merit pay, opposing alternative certification — these are all hallmark of teachers unions and, generally speaking, the candidates they support.
Kansas schoolchildren need school reform. KNEA — the teachers union — and the candidates it supports are there to block every reform. Ask yourself: Who are the education candidates?