Missing from Kansas school financing debate

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:

School choice

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.

Fund balances

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.

Test scores

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.

Alternative remedies

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.


4 thoughts on “Missing from Kansas school financing debate”

  1. Why isn’t our Governor taking a more active roll in getting reforms passed that would allow Charter schools or vouchers. Is he afraid of losing support of the teachers union? A real leader would insist on reforms that would make our schools better instead of pandering to the teachers union. We then wouldn’t have these lawsuits. He should be out front yelling at the top of his voice for the schools to do a better job.

  2. As I’ve said before, our public schools are not truly about educating kids anymore. They are about providing full employment for adults in gov’t jobs that provide good benefits in the present, while promising excellent retirement that taxpayers will never be able to afford in the future. Part of reforming K-12 will require that parents take responsibility for their own children: supporting them, feeding them, and disciplining them. Those in the hierarchy of large districts like USD 259 gladly accept these responsibilities now, because it provides them with job security. Good teachers know that those added responsibilities make it harder and harder for them to educate children. School choice would necessarily force more of these responsibilities back onto the parent, which will force us to peel back another layer of problems: Children having children and being allowed to keep and raise them, AND women who have more and more children, even though they’ve proven they can’t properly raise/feed/discipline the ones they already have. All of this costs the taxpayer and the fabric of our society dearly. LBJ’s Great Society enabled all of this, and it must be peeled back if we are serious about improving K-12 in this country. Opportunities must become opportunities again, as in receiving an education in this country is actually an opportunity, not a right. It’s in our best interests as a country to make that (an education) happen for as many people as possible, but the taxpayer currently has a gun to his head making him responsible as opposed to making each parent responsible to see that their own child takes advantage of the opportunity in front of her. Will we do this on our own or will it be forced on us by the bankruptcy of this country? I fear the later, and the ensuing chaos won’t be pretty.

  3. Well said Bob!!

    Ms. Kimpot54, I couldn’t agree with you more. I fear we haven’t learned our lesson enough yet. I’m working as diligently as possible to get “studied up” and informed as possible. I am getting more and more involved with my local district (USD 385 – Andover), and it’s going to get ugly one of these days. I love our community and want to see it thrive. My goal right now – along with getting “studied up” – is to start “community organizing,” (that’s a scary phrase, aye!!). The system is so overwhelming to most, they don’t even bother to try to understand it and just cave to the demands of the pro-government crowd. I’m doing my best to try to change that!!

    Thank you Bob Weeks, Dave Trabert, Walt Chappell, and all the others who are leading the way. It’s a tough battle… we’ve got 60+ years to ratchet back.

    L8R!!!

  4. Wichita should break the KNEA like was done this week in Rhode Island. The end result is going to be full privatization of the public schools. Bring on the ratchet!

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