A recent Lawrence Journal-World editorial that was repeated in the Wichita Eagle made several claims about Kansas schools that don’t hold up under scrutiny. Unfortunately, the editorial is an example of how difficult it is to have a reasoned discussion of Kansas school issues.
The editorial makes this claim: “In the last four years, per-pupil state funding for public schools has declined by about 14 percent, from $4,400 per student to $3,780. Districts have cut the fat in their budgets and then some. It’s time to correct this dangerous trend.”
This statement about base state aid per pupil is true. But using only that figure to describe spending on schools in Kansas is disingenuous. It hides facts that are contrary. The truth is that Kansas school spending has fallen only slightly in recent years. Charts at the end of this article that are based on figures from Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) tell the story.
The first chart shows total spending per student in Kansas schools. Statewide, spending has declined the past two years. But while school spending advocates describe spending cuts in terms like “falling off a cliff,” the actual decline is quite mild. Using figures adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending is $331 higher than in the 2005 – 2006 school year.
A second chart shows spending on Kansas schools considering state aid only. The drop in spending, considering only state aid, is more pronounced than when looking at funding from all sources. School spending advocates emphasize this fact, but state aid is only part of total school spending. Note also that for the most recent school year, spending per pupil rose.
The third chart illustrates the relationship between base state aid per pupil and total spending. This is important to realize, as the Journal-World editorial notes the large drop. It’s true. Base state aid has decreased. But total state spending, as noted in the previous chart, has not fallen by near as much, and rose for the most recent year. And the line for total school spending has declined only slightly.
Because base state aid has fallen, school spending advocates concentrate on this number. As reported in Kansas school spending: the deception, Mark Desetti, the lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union, uses this argument when he makes the case for more school spending. He’s not alone in using deception to argue for more school spending. The Lawrence Journal-World, only of our state’s largest newspapers, is helping.
The Journal-World editorial also states: “There is no higher priority than recruiting and retaining high quality teachers and giving them classes that are small enough to manage and teach effectively.”
This sentence is partially correct. It’s becoming clear that teacher quality is the most important factor that schools have under their control that influences student achievement. Unfortunately, Kansas schools have policies that work against teacher quality. An example are union pay scales that pay all teachers the same regardless of how good a job they do.
The Journal-World editorial also makes the case for small class sizes: “How can Kansas schools preserve the quality of instruction they offer students with so many fewer teachers in the classrooms? Research has repeatedly documented the positive effect that smaller class size has on educational achievement. There is no doubt that the classroom teachers who have direct contact with students on a day-to-day basis are a critical part of individual students’ academic success.”
The editorial doesn’t cite the research it relies on. If it had to produce a citation, it might find that difficult. Research shows that class size makes a difference for very young children (below third grade), when class size can be reduced to 11 or 12 students. For everyone else, there is no evidence that class size makes a difference. Even the left-wing Center for America progress agrees that small class size is not effective, and summarizes the current research in its article The False Promise of Class-Size Reduction.
But class size reduction remains popular, mostly because it has an intuitive appeal. It seems like it should work. We can understand parents being seduced by its appeal, and we can understand politicians pandering for their votes by supporting class size reduction. We can understand the teachers union advocating for more teachers at any cost, not matter how ineffective they may be. But newspaper editorial writers ought to know better.