As Kansas struggles to find funding for its public schools and other functions of government, we’re losing an opportunity to examine our schools and see if they’re performing as well as they should, both financially and academically. Here are some issues not being discussed:
Across the country, charter schools and school choice programs are offering choice and improved educational outcomes to families. While Kansas has charter schools, the law requires local school board approval, and very few have been approved. School choice in the form of vouchers or tax credits doesn’t exist at all. As a result, Kansas public schools face very little of the competitive forces that have been found to spur public schools to improvement across the country.
School choice programs save money, too. In 2007, the The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the study School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. According to the executive summary: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.”
Kansas is overlooking a reform that would increase freedom and educational opportunity, and would save money at the same time.
The Kansas Policy Institute has found that Kansas schools are sitting on fund balances of some $700 million that could be used to make it through a tough budget year. Using these funds could let schools operate without making cuts to their budgets, and without increasing taxes or finding “revenue enhancements.”
School spending advocates dispute this. But Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis agrees with KPI President Dave Trabert that these fund balances could be used — if schools wanted to.
Chief school spending lobbyist Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) has argued that “many of the funds Trabert labels reserves are restricted or necessary to cover costs before government payments are received.”
That’s true. But this argument, just like a faulty op-ed written by Kansas school board member David Dennis, says nothing about whether the balances in these funds are too high, too low, or just right.
The evidence we do have tells us that the balances in these funds are higher than needed. That’s because they’ve been growing rapidly, by 53 percent over the last four years. The only way the fund balances can grow is if schools aren’t spending the money as fast as it’s going in the funds.
Focus on what works
Class size, merit pay, salary scales, unions, teacher experience and education, certification: all need to be examined to make sure that schools make decisions based on what works. We find, however, that school districts resist reforms. As a monopoly shielded from meaningful competition, Kansas public schools face little pressure to reform.
Consider class size, something that the education bureaucracy says is of utmost importance, and one of the primary reasons given for school bond issues. What the school spending lobby won’t realize is that class size is not important. Instead, the quality of teachers is much more important. Writes education researcher Eric Hanushek: “Much of the work that I have done has focused on teacher effectiveness. From this research I have concluded that teacher quality is the most important factor in determining how well a school will do. … Teacher quality is not captured by typically discussed characteristics of teachers such as master’s degrees, teaching experience, or even certification — things that states typically monitor. Requiring such things unrelated to student performance dilutes accountability and detracts from things that would make them more effective.”
Consider the harm of union work rules: When private sector companies are forced to layoff employees, they may use the opportunity to shed their lower-performing employees first. Government schools, governed by union contracts like the one in Wichita, can’t do this. They must dismiss the teachers with least seniority first. While this might seem like a good way to keep the best teachers, it turns out that experience is only a minor factor in teacher quality.
Are Kansas test scores a reliable and valid measure of student achievement? The test scores that school spending advocates use — tests administered by the state of Kansas — are almost certainly misleading. The basic problem is that scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show achievement by Kansas students largely unchanged in recent years. This is at the same time that scores on tests given by the Kansas education establishment show large improvements. We need to investigate so that we understand the source of this difference. The Kansas education bureaucracy resists such efforts.
The cost of a suitable education
Now that the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that school districts can’t short-circuit the process by simply reopening the Montoy case, it appears that the issue of what an education in Kansas should cost will need to be litigated again. This should provide an opportunity to examine the cost studies used by the court. The Kansas Policy Institute has published Kansas Primer on Education Funding: Volume II Analysis of Montoy vs. State of Kansas, which provides useful criticism and perspective of the cost studies used.
Besides ordering increased spending, courts should consider alternative remedies. These might take the form of increased opportunities for parents to escape failing public schools, for example.