Looking for Kansas school efficiency, sort of

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback started an online Kansas school efficiency task force inefficiency form. In response, Kansas House Democrats have launched a Kansas K12 efficiency survey.

The Democratic survey contains a few loaded questions that are sure to influence the responses received. For example: “Please describe – as specifically as possible – how the reduction of state public education funding has impacted you, your child, or your school directly (larger class sizes, higher fees, higher property taxes, eliminated programs, fired teachers, etc).”

First: Spending on schools in Kansas has fallen some in recent years, but just a little bit, as you can see in the chart. The question above specifically references state spending. That, as you can also see, did fall for a few years, but the difference was almost totally matched by an increase in federal spending. That fall in state spending, by the way, happened under the administration of Democratic governors.

Kansas school spending per student through 2012.

Second: The question also mentions “larger class sizes” and “fired teachers.” These are personnel issues. If we look at the ratio of students to employees, we see these ratios have changed. For a time they were decreasing, meaning that there fewer students per employee, considering either teachers only or all employees. These numbers have inched back up. But the student/teacher ratio today is still better than it was in 2005.

Kansas school student/employee ratios.

Another question reads: “Please describe – as specifically as possible – how your school has INCREASED efficiency as a result of reduced state funding.”

The use of capitalization to emphasize a specific word lets us know that only increased efficiency stories are welcome. Besides that, there’s a troubling premise in the question, that schools will look to increase efficiency only when funding is reduced. We might think that schools should always be looking for ways to increase efficiency. That lets them either operate on smaller budgets, or deliver more and better education for the same budget.

Kansas Democratic legislative leaders, however, don’t see things quite that way. They are offended by suggestions that schools aren’t operating as efficiently as possible, charging that critics are demonizing schools.

But schools can operate more efficiently. In 2010, despite claims that school spending had been “cut to the bone,” USD 259, the Wichita public school district, found a way to save $2.5 million per year by adjusting school starting times, thereby saving on transportation costs.

If we really believe that schools are underfunded, and that underfunding is harming children, why didn’t the Wichita school district look for and implement this cost-saving measure earlier? Was the threat of reduced funding the necessary impetus, as implied in the Democrats’ questions?

Surely this isn’t all that can be saved. Kansas Policy Institute looked at K-12 spending in Kansas and concluded that schools statewide are spending as much as $717 million more than is necessary, and that implementing the “best practices” of more efficient districts could eliminate the need to raise taxes or cut spending on other essential services. Volume 3: Analysis of K-12 Spending in Kansas of KPI’s series “A Kansas Primer on Education Funding” also found that, despite district claims that they are underfunded, most districts haven’t spent all of the money they received in past years.

The competing online survey forms illustrate a problem inherent with Kansas public schools that we don’t see in the private sector. Do we worry whether the grocery store is operating efficiently? No, because the grocery store faces market competition for customers and capital. But Kansas schools — because there is no effective school choice in Kansas — don’t face competition for customers in any meaningful way, and their capital is free of cost. Kansas Democrats (and their moderate Republican allies) fight against school choice to keep it that way.

We also have to wonder whether Kansas Democrats are really interested in finding school inefficiencies. Eliminating many inefficiencies will mean reducing the number of workers, and government workers are a key constituent of Democrats.


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