As the Kansas Legislature debates spending on schools, we have to hope that legislators are more knowledgeable about school spending than the average Kansan. Surveys have found that few Kansans have accurate information regarding school spending. Surprisingly, those with children in the public school system are even more likely to be uninformed regarding accurate figures. But when presented with accurate information about changes in school spending, few Kansans are willing to pay increased taxes to support more school spending.
These are some of the findings of a 2010 survey commissioned by Kansas Policy Institute.
Not only did Kansans underestimate school spending levels, they did so for the state portion of school funding, and again for the total of all funding sources — state, federal, and local.
Many people greatly underestimated school funding. For all sources of funding on a per-student basis, 43% of poll respondents chose a number that is less than half the actual number.
On a question asking about the change in Kansas school funding over the past five years, 64% thought that funding had declined. Only 6% knew that funding had increased by over 15% during that period. The five year time period is significant, as it was in 2005 that the Kansas Supreme Court ordered additional school spending as a result of the Montoy case.
When asked about their willingness to pay higher taxes to support mores school funding, 51% said they would, if per-pupil funding was down from five years ago. But when asked whether they would pay more taxes in per-pupil funding had gone up by over 20%, only 11% said yes. According to the Kansas State Department of Education, total funding per pupil increased by 26% over this period.
The survey was conducted by The Research Partnership, Inc., a Wichita-based market research firm. The complete results may be viewed at the Kansas Reporter website at K-12 Public Opinion Survey, or here.
Survey participants were asked if they would like to make comments regarding funding of Kansas public schools. There are 17 pages of these comments.
The results of this Kansas poll are similar to recent nationwide results discovered by EducationNext, a project of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. That study is summarized at Americans uninformed about school spending, study finds. Another study with similar findings is at Kansas school spending: citizens again are uninformed.
It’s not surprising that Kansans are misinformed about the level of school spending and its changes. Even members of the Kansas House of Representatives and the Wichita School Board are sometimes uninformed, misinformed. It’s either that or we have to conclude they are lying to us.
The school spending lobby in Kansas focuses on only one measure of school spending, base state aid per pupil. That number is approximately one-third of total school spending, and it has declined. As this study shows, it is in the best interests of the Kansas school establishment for average Kansans to be uninformed about the true levels of school spending. When presented with accurate information about school spending, Kansans are not willing to pay higher taxes.
We can understand the motivation of schools to lobby for increased spending. But they should be truthful. It’s even worse when newspaper editorial writers don’t recognize the truth. An example is a recent Wichita Eagle editorial written by Rhonda Holman. She repeated the meme of the school spending lobby, writing: “… despite state per-pupil base aid having been slashed to 1999 levels.” Most people don’t know that “base aid” is only one component of Kansas school spending. It’s the starting point for the Kansas school finance formula. After weightings are applied, most school districts receive much more funding than the base aid figure. The Wichita school district, for example, received $6,511 per pupil from the state at a time when base state aid was $4,012. Also, look at the total spending picture: From 1999 to last year, Wichita school spending jumped from $336 million to over $604 million. State aid to this district increased from $200 million to $328 million over the same time.
It’s also likely that the current school year will see record spending on schools in Kansas.
So why don’t Holman and the Wichita Eagle use the total spending figures, or even the total state aid numbers? Focusing on one component of Kansas school finance that is not representative of the entire picture is a disservice to Wichita Eagle readers.