In an effort to spur greater efficiency in Kansas public schools, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback created a school efficiency task force. The task force has released its report, which may be viewed here.
While some of the recommendations are very useful and should be implemented, some are minor in nature, and some — especially the ones that would reduce the power of the teachers union — will be very difficult to implement. There is also a list of mostly generic “best practices,” such as “Look for savings on utilities.” The task force also solicited anonymous suggestions from the public, and a representative sample is included.
Two specific recommendations relate to the issue of the various funds schools use and their balances. This has been a contentious issue, with schools defending the need for large (and increasing) fund balances. See Kansas schools have used funds to increase spending for background.
School districts have complained that the state has been late in making its payments. School districts use this as an argument for the need for high fund balances. So it’s not surprising to see this recommendation: “Place a priority emphasis on the timely transfer of state payments to school districts in June and January.”
There’s also this recommendation: “Legislatively eliminate, reduce, and consolidate the statutory cash reserve accounts and separate fund accounts that currently exist, thereby ending the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ policy and allowing the funding contained in each fund category to be more broadly spent across the full variety of educational requirements. Accounts that remain, including the General Fund, should be allowed a modest amount of carryover from year to year.”
The explanation tells us that the current system of accounts restricts school districts’ ability to effectively use funding. And obviously, “use-it-or-lose-it” is a bad policy.
There is also the recommendation to form a definition of what counts as “instructional” spending, and whether the current target of 65 percent instruction spending is the best goal.
In school bond issue campaigns, a popular selling point made to voters is that the state will pay for some of the bond payments. It’s pitched as free money, or at least as a way to get back the money the taxpayers have been sending to Topeka to pay for other school districts’ bonds. So another recommendation is to consider reevaluating this program.
The issue of accounting and data management is addressed, with examples of the state requiring reports that are “cumbersome, inefficient, and time-consuming” to provide. The reports calls for data to be trackable down to the building level, and made more readily available to the public.
There are also recommendations that are sure to be opposed by Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union. These include a review of teacher tenure, seen as limiting administrators’ ability to efficiently allocate resources. Instead of the strict salary schedule that is currently used, the report recommends a salary range, which could include factors like experience and area of expertise.
There is also recommended a reduction in the matters that are subject to negotiation with the union, specifically mentioning “work hours, amount of work, insurance benefits, force reductions, professional evaluation procedures, etc.” as no longer subject to mandatory negotiation.
Missing from the dialog
Perhaps it was not included in the mandate given to this task force, but missing from the recommendations is using the power of markets to improve the education of Kansas schoolchildren.
For example: Private sector firms don’t need to be told to “Look for savings on utilities.” The profit motive induces them to do things like this, either to earn a better return on investment, or in the case of non-profit institutions, to better serve more customers (students).
While public education spending advocates insist that schools shouldn’t be subject to the same competitive market forces that rule the business world, competition works wonders in states where it is allowed to exist. Since Kansas has a very weak charter school law (and therefore very few charter schools) and no school choice through vouchers or tax credit scholarships, Kansas schoolchildren don’t benefit from the dynamism that we see in other states.
We also don’t experience the cost savings that states with school choice see. The The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has found — over and over — that school choice programs save money.
Unfortunately, Governor Brownback has not expressed support for school choice programs, or even for charter schools.
Schools are sure to oppose most of the recommendations, even those that are the hallmark of good government. An example is a KSN Television news story which reported that Newton school superintendent John Morton thinks it is “a real concern” when citizens have access to data about government spending. This is a common reaction by government bureaucrats and officials. They prefer to operate without citizen scrutiny.
Finally, there is this irony: The Kansas school bureaucracy says that everything they do “is for the kids.” You might think that they would already be doing everything they can to increase school efficiency in order to benefit students. They have much of the power they need to do this. It’s time to see whether they’re actually willing to act in the best interests of Kansas schoolchildren, and for taxpayers, too.