New York Times on Kansas schools, again

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The New York Times — again — intervenes in Kansas schools. As it did last October, the newspaper makes serious errors in its facts and recommendations.

An op-ed in the New York Times is being used by the Kansas public school spending establishment as evidence for the need to increase school spending in Kansas. (What’s the Matter With Kansas’ Schools?, January 8, 2014) The authors are David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, and Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Before Kansas schoolchildren celebrate that the nation’s newspaper of record has taken up their case, let’s examine some of the claims and reasoning used by these authors.

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The op-ed makes this claim: “Overall, the Legislature slashed public education funding to 16.5 percent below the 2008 level.” Claims like this look only at base state aid per pupil funding, which is just part of total spending. Total state aid per pupil this past school year was $6,984. Base state aid per pupil was $3,838. Total state spending, therefore, was 1.82 times base state aid.

It’s important to consider the totality of spending and not just base state aid. It’s important because total spending is so much greater than base state aid. Also, total spending accounts for some of the difficulties and expenses that schools cite when asking for higher spending. For example, advocates for higher school spending often point to non-English speaking students and at-risk students as being expensive to educate. In recognition of this, the Kansas school finance formula makes allowances for this. According to the Kansas Legislator Briefing Book for 2013, the weighting for “full-time equivalent enrollment in bilingual education programs” is 0.395. This means that for each such student a school district has, an additional 39.5 percent over base state aid is given to the district.

For at-risk pupils, the weighting is 0.456. At risk students, according to the briefing book, “are determined on the basis of at-risk factors determined by the school district board of education and not by virtue of eligibility for free meals.” Taken together, bilingual students considered to be at-risk generate an additional 85.1 percent of base state aid to be sent to the district, per student.

The decline in base state aid per pupil is a convenient fact for public school spending boosters. They can use a statistic that contains a grain of truth in order to whip up concern over inadequate school spending. They can cite this as an argument for increasing spending, even though spending has been rising.

Further, citing only base state aid reduces “sticker shock.” Most people are surprised to learn that our schools spend $12,781 per student. It’s much easier to tell taxpayers that only $3,838 was spent. But that’s not a complete picture, not by far. For more on this, see Kansas school spending holding steady and Kansas school spending, by district.

The Times op-ed also states “Class sizes have increased, teachers and staff members have been laid off.” But statistics show that school employment has rebounded, both in terms of absolute numbers of teachers and certified employees, and also in the ratios of students to these employees. This video explains.

The story is not the same in every district. But considering the entire state, two trends emerge. For the past two years, the number of teachers employed in Kansas public schools has risen. Correspondingly, the student-teacher ratio has fallen. The trend for certified employees is a year behind that of teachers, but for the last year, the number of certified employees has risen, and the ratio to pupils has fallen.

Kansas school employment

I’ve created interactive visualizations that let you examine the employment levels and ratios in Kansas school districts.

Kansas school employment ratios

Click here for the visualization of employment levels. Click here for the visualization of ratios (pupil-teacher and pupil-certified employee).

The Times continues: “The judges also found that the Legislature was not meeting even the basic funding amounts set in its own education cost studies.” We shouldn’t rely on these documents. See Suitable education in Kansas. The primary study that Kansas relies upon is defective in this way, according to testimony from Kansas Policy Institute: “Augenblick & Myers (A&M) openly admitted that they deliberately deviated from their own Successful Schools methodology and delivered artificially high spending numbers by ignoring efficient use of taxpayer money. Amazingly, the Montoy courts still based their rulings on ‘evidence’ that was known to be worthless. And now the Shawnee County District Court is following that legal precedent in its ruling on Gannon.

The Times also writes “A victory for the parents would be heartening” and “Kansans rightfully take pride in their strong public school system.”

Talking about school spending is easy, although the Times, like most Kansas newspapers, doesn’t tell its readers the full story on spending. Advocating for more spending is easy. It’s easy because the Kansas Constitution says the state must spend on schools, parents want more spending, teachers want it, public employee unions want it. It’s easy to want more spending on schools because anyone who doesn’t is branded as anti-child, anti-education, anti-human.

But the focus on school spending lets the Kansas public school establishment off the hook too easily. Any and all shortcomings of Kansas schools can be blamed on inadequate funding, and that’s what happens.

The focus on school spending also keeps attention away from some unfortunate and unpleasant facts about Kansas schools that the establishment would rather not talk about. Kansas needs to confront these facts for the sake of Kansas schoolchildren. Editorials like this in the New York Times are very harmful to Kansas schoolchildren, because if the editorial’s recommendation is taken, not much is likely to improve, but the public school establishment will say that everything that’s wrong has been fixed.

Here’s what Kansas needs to confront. Regarding Kansas school performance, we have to confront two unpleasant realities. First, Kansas has set low standards for its schools, compared to other states. Then, when the Kansas Supreme Court ordered more spending in 2005, the state responded by lowering school standards further. Kansas school superintendents defend these standards.

When referring to “strong public school system,” here’s what Kansans need to know. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” Kansas ranks pretty high among the states on this test. It’s important, however, to examine the results from a few different angles to make sure we understand the entire situation. An illustrative video is available here.

Kansas and National NAEP Scores, 2011, by Ethnicity and Race

If we compare Kansas NAEP scores to those of Texas, we have what seems to be four contradictory statements, but each is true.

  • When considering all students: Kansas scores higher than Texas.
  • Hispanic students only: Kansas is roughly equal to Texas.
  • Black students only: Kansas scores below Texas.
  • White students only: Kansas scores below Texas in most cases.

What explains this paradox is that the two states differ greatly in the proportion of students in ethnic groups. In Kansas, 69 percent of students are white. In Texas it’s 33 percent. This large difference in the composition of students is what makes it look like Kansas students perform better on the NAEP than Texas students.

But looking at the scores for ethnic subgroups, which state would you say has the most desirable set of NAEP scores? It’s important to know that aggregated data can mask or hide underlying trends.

Here’s a question for you: Have you heard Kansas school leaders talk about this? Does the New York Times editorial board know this?


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