Shortchanging Kansas schoolchildren, indeed

School blackboardThis month the New York Times published an editorial that advocates for more spending on Kansas public schools. While getting some facts wrong, the piece also overlooks the ways that Kansas schoolchildren are truly being shortchanged.

Here’s evidence supplied by the Times (Shortchanging Kansas Schoolchildren, October 13, 2013): “State spending on education has fallen an estimated 16.5 percent since 2008, including $500 million in cuts under the Brownback administration, resulting in teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.” (Governor Brownback has responded to the editorial; see Kansas Governor responds to the Times.)

The Times editorial board doesn’t say how it calculated the 16.5 percent decline in spending, but it’s likely that it used only base state aid per pupil, which is the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula. Much more spending is added to that. A nearby table holds spending figures for recent years, and a similar chart with inflation-adjusted figures may be found in Kansas school spending rises.

kansas-school-spending-2013-10-table-02

Perhaps the Times didn’t notice that at the time base state aid was falling, total state spending on schools rose. Base state aid per pupil, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was during the previous decade. Total Kansas state spending on schools, however, has recovered to the same level as 2006, in inflation-adjusted dollars.

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.

Teachers and class sizes

The Times wrote that under Brownback, Kansas experienced “teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.” Figures from the Kansas State Department of Education tell a different story. 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 pupil-teacher ratio has fallen.

Kansas school employment

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. Pupil-teacher ratio is not the same as class size, but it’s the data we have.

Here’s the question we need to answer: If school districts have been able to hire more teachers and other certified employees, and if the student to teacher ratio is improving at the same time, but there are still high class sizes, what are school districts doing with these teachers and employees?

Kansas school employment ratios

By the way, the Times editorial writers might be interested in learning that the declines in school employment occurred during the administrations of Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, Democrats both.

I’ve created interactive visualizations that let you examine the employment levels and ratios in Kansas school districts. Click here for the visualization of employment levels. Click here for the visualization of ratios (pupil-teacher and pupil-certified employee).

If the Times really wanted to help Kansas schoolchildren from being shortchanged, it might have noticed that at a time when Kansas was spending more on schools due to an order from the Kansas Supreme Court, the state weakened its already low standards for schools. This is the conclusion of the National Center for Education Statistics, based on the most recent version of Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales. More about that can be found in Why are Kansas school standards so low?

Another thing the Times could have done to increase the public’s awareness of the performance of Kansas schools is to investigate why Kansas schools perform relatively well on national tests. I and others have done this; see Kansas school test scores, a hidden story and Kansas and Texas schools and low-income students.


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