Kansas school spending: the complete picture

In an effort to drum up support for school spending in Kansas, advocates seize on a partial picture of school spending to make their case.

An example: A recent Lawrence Journal-World editorial contained “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.”

Writing in the Wichita Eagle, Rhonda Holman complained of “several years of cuts totaling \$653 per pupil.” (Reason to be wary, December 16 Wichita Eagle)

Kansas school spending, as presented by the Wichita public school district.

In a bond issue update video presentation for USD 259, the Wichita public school district, spokesperson Susan Arensman spoke of “severe loss of funding from the state.” Displayed on the screen at this time was a chart titled “State per-pupil funding.”

These presentations of data are designed to convince Kansans that school funding has been cut, and cut severely. The actual facts, however, are quite different.

For example, following is a chart showing spending by USD 259, the Wichita school district. Can you spot cuts or declines in spending? There is one instance on this chart where spending, on a per-pupil basis, was less than the year before. That’s an example of a cut — and the only one, considering the last ten years illustrated in this chart.

Wichita school spending. Total spending, in red, is measured on the left axis. Per-pupil spending is in blue and measured on the right axis.

So how do newspapers and school districts make a claim of cuts?

They do so by looking at only one part of spending on schools by the State of Kansas: base state aid per pupil. That number has fallen, as shown in the chart in the video.

But base state aid per pupil is only part of the spending story. It’s the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula. After weightings are applied, most school districts receive much more funding than the base figure. The Wichita school district, for example, received \$6,511 per pupil from the state at a time when base state aid was \$4,012.

While Kansas school spending has declined, it has not declined as much as has base state aid. At the same time, federal funding for schools increased to make up almost all the difference. As the following chart illustrates, total spending on Kansas schools has declined slightly for the past two years. For the school year starting in 2009, total spending was down 2.61 percent. For the year starting in 2010, spending declined 0.38 percent.

These declines are much less pronounced than the drop in base state aid.

Which figures should we use to represent the history of spending in Kansas schools: (a) Total spending, or (b) a small slice of spending that happens to support the case of those who believe that it is impossible to spend too much on schools?

The answer, if we are to be honest, is (a) total spending. Those who use base state aid as the only measure of spending on public schools in Kansas need to be held accountable for their misrepresentation.