Role of government in Kansas schools deflects attention from solutions

Focus on two Kansas school efficiency panels, school spending, and the surrounding politics is deflecting attention away from what Kansas schoolchildren and parents really need: Choice.

As part of an effort to increase the efficiency of Kansas public schools, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback announced an online portal for reporting inefficiencies. People may remain anonymous if the want. To view the form or report an inefficiency, click on Kansas school efficiency task force inefficiency form.

Here’s an example to get started: I have received several letters from the Wichita School District using priority mail — an expensive service — to me one sheet of paper. Other government agencies are content to deliver similar correspondence by email.

This effort, like the Kansas school efficiency task force itself has been harshly criticized by those in the school system. An example from Twitter yesterday is this: “Another Brownback salvo against public education. An insult to all KS schools. Red meat for the uneducated.”

In response to the governor’s task force, another has been created by KASB, the Kansas Association of School Boards. Its purpose, as described in Topeka Capital-Journal reporting, is to “to analyze options available to local district officials to maximize educational return on investments in K-12 public schools.”

One might think that the prime mission of a school board advocacy group would already be to “maximize educational return on investments.” What could be more important when considering the lives of Kansas schoolchildren and the plight of taxpayers?

But I guess schools have to be prodded a bit. Does anyone notice the irony: Those already in charge of Kansas public schools have had the power to implement efficiency measures. They don’t need permission or a task force.

There’s an incongruity here. On one hand, the public schools are (almost) entirely dependent on tax revenue for their funding. But public school officials object to the term “government schools.” In an email from Wichita School District Interim Superintendent Martin Libhart to Wichita school employees during the 2008 bond issue campaign, he took issue with those who, using his words, “openly refer to public education as ‘government schools.'” To him, this is something that shouldn’t be mentioned.

I don’t blame them. Last year ABC News reported on the low opinion Americans have of government: “Only 26 percent of Americans in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll say they’re optimistic about ‘our system of government and how well it works,’ down 7 points since October to the fewest in surveys dating to 1974. Almost as many, 23 percent, are pessimistic, the closest these measures ever have come. The rest, a record high, are ‘uncertain’ about the system.”

Schools want (what they consider) the good things about government — people being forced to pay taxes to support them — while at the same time they try to avoid the justifiably low esteem in which people hold government programs.

Governmental decisions are made through our political system — that is, unless we want to cede total control to bureaucrats. So we can’t keep politics out of school decisions as long as they are government schools. In today’s Wichita Eagle editorial writer Phillip Brownlee expressed concern for the role of politics in schools, especially surrounding the governor’s efficiency task force, concluding: “Though politics are swirling around the task force, it still may be able to come up with some good suggestions for reducing overhead without harming educational outcomes. If it does, great.” (Eagle editorial: School task force has rocky start)

I don’t think Brownlee meant to perform this public service, but his editorial is an example of why we need less government involvement in education. Our government — excuse me, public — schools are one of the most powerful ways through which civil society is destroyed. In the process, we replace the innovation and creativity of free markets and economic freedom with moribund governmental programs for our children.

As an example, take the controversy over what percent of school spending should go into the classroom. This is one of the motivating factors behind the school efficiency task force.

But consider this: Do we worry about how much the grocery store spends on administration versus other expenses? Do we quarrel over the number of assembly workers vs. managers at a manufacturing company?

Of course we don’t, at least we who don’t own these organizations. Instead, we recognize that these business firms operate in a competitive environment. That competition is a powerful force that motivates them to find the right mix of management and other expenses, or at least a good mix.

We also recognize that there are different types of grocery stores. Some offer more customer service than others. People are free to choose which type of store they like best, even on different days.

Schools in Kansas, however, face few competitive forces. There is little incentive for the public schools to find the right mix of spending, or to increase efficiency, or to offer the wide variety of choice that we have come to expect in the private sector. (It also seems that we’re failing to consider that different types of schools might work best with different mixes of classroom and other spending.)

This is what we are missing in Kansas. With greater choices available to students and parents, there will be less need for government oversight of schools and all the bickering that accompanies decisions made through the political process.

Unfortunately, we’re not moving in that direction in Kansas. Last week in Wichita, Governor Brownback had two opportunities to promote school choice in Kansas. On the Joseph Ashby radio program he was asked about school choice, but wouldn’t commit to it as a priority.

Later that day at the Wichita Pachyderm Club a similar question was asked, and again Brownback wouldn’t commit to school choice. The focus right now is efficiency and to get fourth grade reading levels up, Brownback said. He added that about 28 percent of fourth graders can’t read at basic level, which he described as a “real problem. If you can’t read, the world starts really shrinking around you.”

It’s a mystery why Governor Brownback hasn’t made school choice a priority in Kansas. Many governors are doing that and instituting other wide-reaching reforms.


One thought on “Role of government in Kansas schools deflects attention from solutions”

  1. You can’t compare public education in KS to other states because there’s a slightly different legal system and constitutional status. Conservatives have been barking up this tree for decades. But, the types of reforms recommended are inconsistent with Art 6 of KS Const. I feel like KS cons embrace their constitutional charge only if it suits them and their ideological interests. If Brownback wants proposed reforms, he needs to back off legislative and budget changes and try to sell the people on constitutional amendment. Until such time, most of what they propose will be struck down by courts. The legislators call these “activist judges” but in reality it’s the legislators that are over-reaching. The constitution says what it says, and legislators take an oath to defend it. If the people don’t like the constitution, they’re free to change it.

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