Wichita schools present case for spending to public

Last night USD 259, the Wichita public school district, held two meetings with the public seeking ideas on how to deal with a budget shortfall. I attended the meeting at Southeast High School.

In an opening presentation, Wichita school board member Connie Dietz presented a series of charts that explained some facts about Wichita school revenue and expenditures. For revenues, 57.1% comes from the state, 15.9% from the federal government, and 27% from local taxpayer.

Expenditures fall into two categories: unrestricted funds, which comprise 40.5% of spending, and restricted funds, which are 59.5%.

School district leaders like to portray themselves as hamstrung by the restricted funds. “We can not use that money for anything except for what it has been designated for,” Dietz said. An example given of a restricted fund expenditure is KPERS, the school district retirement system. Whether this money comes from a restricted or unrestricted fund makes little difference. It’s an expense the district must pay.

As a Kansas Watchdog story explains: “districts do receive [restricted funds] and have control over how it is spent. They are required to provide special education services but they do have discretion to decide what to spend in providing the services. They also have discretion to delay or reduce the cost of certain capital projects. A complete breakdown of expenditures deemed to be ‘restricted’ was not provided.”

On a slide showing the trend of per-pupil funding, the figures used were the base state aid per pupil, which is about $4,000 at this time. That’s misleading, as base state aid is only part — a relatively small part — of total school funding. For example, for the 2008 to 2009 school year, base state aid per pupil was $4,400. But the Wichita school district, according to Kansas State Department of Education figures, received $7,918 per student after various weightings were applied. That’s 80% more than the base state aid figure.

Total spending that year was $12,370 per student. It’s these large figures that the school spending lobby does its best to hide.

It’s not uncommon for the school spending lobby and its supporters to do what they can to hide the magnitude of spending on schools. They’ll also do their best to exaggerate the effects of any slowdown in the rapid rate at which spending has been increasing. This was demonstrated by Rep. Melody McCray-Miller at a recent legislative forum in Wichita. She disputed the total amount of spending by the Wichita school district. Wichita board of education member Lanora Nolan disputed these same figures at a Wichita Pachyderm Club meeting. Also see Wichita schools on the funding decrease.

Dietz claimed that funding has been going down at the time that the cost of living has been going up rapidly. The fact is that inflation has been quite low for many years. In fact, last year prices actually declined, and social security recipients didn’t receive a cost of living adjustment because of this.

Dietz promoted the success that the Wichita schools have achieved over the years. Math scores, she said are up 24% since 2000, and reading scores are up 19% over the same period. But upward trend in these scores, which are from the Kansas state-administered tests, can’t be reconciled with scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over the same time. That test, which can’t be manipulated by Kansas school bureaucrats, shows only slight increases — in some cases decreases — in scores.

The NAEP scores are for the entire state, not just the Wichita school district. But Wichita’s results mirror the trend of the state. So how is it that Kansas tests show rapid improvement, but NAEP tests do not?

It’s an important question, as school spending advocates use the purported linkage between increased spending and increased performance on the Kansas tests as proof the spending works. But if the Kansas tests are not a reliable and valid measure of student learning — and that appears to be the case — the argument of the school spending lobby breaks down.

School spending advocates like Dietz and the rest of the Wichita school board say that the education of Kansas schoolchildren is vital for the economic future of our state and country. I agree. The questions I have are these: Are Kansas schools performing as well as Kansas school bureaucrats claim? Is a government monopoly the best way to educate Kansas schoolchildren?


4 thoughts on “Wichita schools present case for spending to public”

  1. I agree with the Wichita board that placing restrictions on a large portion of their budget can sometimes tie their hands. I would much prefer that the federal education department simply cease to exist and schools only received funding from local and state taxes, in lump sums with no restrictions. I think over time you’d see trends in how schools allocated their resources and where students tended to achieve more.

    HOWEVER, the district goes further than simply saying that their hands are tied sometimes. Educrats are asking the public to believe that simply because they have funds with restrictions that somehow that automatically means the funds mean nothing and shouldn’t be considered “funding” to the district at all. This is, of course, rubbish.

    If this were true, then the same folks who advocate for unlimited increases in school funding should also be advocating for lifting restrictions of funds the state hands out in food stamps and Medicaid. After all, those funds come with many restrictions.

    What most families who participate in these programs find out is that in real terms their income has been increased. Take food stamps for example. It’s not that the family wasn’t buying food before, it’s simply that now they are getting a certain amount of income that can only be spent on food. So that frees up income that before would have been spent on food, but can now be spent on other items, like fixing the car or paying off a credit card. The same applies to any school district that accepts “restricted funds.” Their funding has still increased in real terms, but it may not be dollar for dollar as if they had received unrestricted funds.

    Let’s take a look at the food stamps example again. If a family was spending $300 a month on food and then applied for and receives food stamps in the amount of $350 a month, will that family use all $350? Maybe and maybe not. Perhaps the family values food and didn’t skimp before and will still only spend $300. Perhaps they were skimping and will now spend all $350 to live a little, or maybe even spend a little of their own money and go above and beyond $350. In either case, the $350 from the government can only be spent on food. So for one family their real income has increased by $300, but for another it’s increased by $350. It depends on that family’s “demand” for the restricted use of those funds how much their “real income” has increased.

    The same logic applies to schools. The problem is we have no way to know what schools would pay for these programs that are funded with restricted funds. Maybe they wouldn’t have the program at all, in which case the district would be correct to state that their budget is no better off. But in most cases that’s not the case.

    To determine this, one would only need to look at a program that receives restricted funds and see if it is funded 100% with restricted funds or if there is additional “unrestricted” funding. If the latter is the case, then that district’s budget has increased dollar for dollar for the restricted funding they’ve received. In other words, the fact the district is chipping in unrestricted funds indicates that that district would fund that program at the same level even if they weren’t receiving restricted funding. Thus it’s fair to say that their budget has increased dollar for dollar. Restricted or not, those funds would be spent and it’s wrong for the district to claim otherwise.

    If the opposite is true and a program is funded 100% with restricted funding, then it’s fair to say that even though the district is getting $1 million, they may not need that much. But much like the one family that was spending $300 and now spends $350 for food, the district sees free money, why not spend it? That’s where bureaucracy is created.

    I think it’d be great if schools and limited spending advocates could team up and try to free up some of these restricted funds. Sometimes it is unfair to say restricted funds are just as good as unrestricted funds, but not always. The fact is, it takes a little more information and digging to reach the truth.

  2. ‘Restricted’ is a misleading term as applied to most school expenditures. Funds received for bond payments and bond-funded capital projects are restricted in the true sense of the word. However, districts do have discretion over most other school revenues and expenditures. Once money goes into most funds (other than General, Supplemental General and Contingency Reserve) it can legally only be used for the stated purpose of the fund. But that does NOT mean that schools must spend the money in those funds, nor does it mean they have no discretion over how much to spend in providing certain services. Federal funds often have certain strings attached but most state money and property tax revenue does not.

    It’s very misleading to say that certain spending is ‘restricted,’ especially when the implication is that districts have no control over whether to spend the money. Districts have complete discretion over how much to spend out of most funds and on how they choose to spend the money. It’s a shame that we can’t have a completely open and honest discussion of school funding.

    The truth is that schools can operate on less money by becoming more efficient and still provide a quality education. Legislative Post Audit studies and other independent analysis come to that same conclusion. Even at this year’s reduced levels, Kansas schools are still receiving 18% more state aid per-pupil than they did 5 years ago, and total aid per-pupil is 26% higher than 5 years ago.

    The school funding issue is important, but here’s the bigger issue: every dollar that is unnecessarily spent on a government service is a dollar that must either be taken away from another service or unnecessarily taken away from taxpayers.

  3. A goverment monopoly is not be the best way to educate the children of Kansas. We need competition. We need the money to follow the student whether it is to public, private or home school. We need real charter schools. We need distance learning. We need e-learning. We need to rapidly move toward total privatization.

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