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Focus on Kansas school funding formula is a distraction

Kansas is undertaking an effort to revise its school funding formula. This effort is likely to be a big deal, consuming large amounts of time, attention, and effort. But I’ve not heard one thing discussed much, the one thing which ought to be paramount: How will this affect the achievement of schoolchildren?

As Kansas struggles with a formula for financing schools, we’re losing an opportunity to examine our schools and see if they’re performing as well as they should, both financially and academically. Here are some issues not being discussed on a widespread basis:

School choice

Across the country, charter schools and school choice programs are offering choice and improved educational outcomes to families. While Kansas has charter schools, the charter school law in Kansas is one of the weakest in the nation, and virtually guarantees that public schools won’t face much meaningful competition from charters.

School choice in the form of vouchers or tax credits doesn’t exist at all in Kansas. As a result, Kansas public schools face very little of the competitive forces that have been found to spur public schools to improvement across the country.

School choice programs save money, too. In 2007, the The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the study School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. According to the executive summary: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.”

Kansas is overlooking several reforms that would increase freedom and educational opportunity and would save money at the same time.

Accountability with teeth

Recently former Florida Governor Jeb Bush explained the accountability measures that have produced great success in Florida. Measures including grading individual schools from “A” to “F,” ending social promotion, and school choice programs, which help all schools: “Choice is the catalytic converter here, accelerating the benefits of other education reforms. Almost 300,000 students opt for one of these alternatives, and research from the Manhattan Institute, Cornell and Harvard shows that Florida’s public schools have improved in the face of competition provided by the many school-choice programs.”

Teacher quality policies

Recently Sandi Jacobs of National Council for Teacher Quality spoke in Wichita and addressed Kansas policies regarding teacher quality. Our policies rank below the average for all states. More information from Jacob’s presentation is at Kansas ranks low in policies on teacher quality.

Fund balances

The Kansas Policy Institute has found that Kansas schools are sitting on large fund balances that could be used to make it through a tough budget year.

School spending advocates dispute the use of the funds. But Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis agrees with KPI President Dave Trabert that these fund balances could be used — if the schools wanted to.

Chief school spending lobbyist Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) has argued that “many of the funds Trabert labels reserves are restricted or necessary to cover costs before government payments are received.”

That’s true. But this argument, just like a faulty op-ed written by Kansas school board member David Dennis, says nothing about whether the balances in these funds are too high, too low, or just right.

The evidence we do have tells us that the balances in these funds are more than needed, because they’ve been growing rapidly. The only way the fund balances can grow is if schools aren’t spending the money as fast as it’s going in the funds.

Focus on what works

Class size, merit pay, salary scales, unions, teacher experience and education, certification: all need to be examined to make sure that schools make decisions based on what works. We find, however, that school districts resist reforms. As a monopoly shielded from significant competition, Kansas public schools face little pressure to reform.

Consider class size, something that the education bureaucracy says is of utmost importance, and one of the primary reasons given for school bond issues. What the school spending lobby won’t realize is that class size is not important. Even the left-wing Center for American Progress agrees, as explained in Class size reduction not effective. Instead, the quality of teachers is much more important. Writes education researcher Eric Hanushek: “Much of the work that I have done has focused on teacher effectiveness. From this research I have concluded that teacher quality is the most important factor in determining how well a school will do. … Teacher quality is not captured by typically discussed characteristics of teachers such as master’s degrees, teaching experience, or even certification — things that states typically monitor. Requiring such things unrelated to student performance dilutes accountability and detracts from things that would make them more effective.”

Consider the harm of union work rules: When private sector companies are forced to layoff employees, they may use the opportunity to shed their lower-performing employees first. Government schools, governed by union contracts like the one in Wichita, can’t do this. They must dismiss the teachers with least seniority first. While this might seem like a good way to keep the best teachers, it turns out that experience is only a minor factor in teacher quality.

Test scores

Are Kansas test scores a reliable and valid measure of student achievement? The test scores that school spending advocates use — tests administered by the state of Kansas — are almost certainly misleading. The basic problem is that scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show achievement by Kansas students largely unchanged in recent years. This is at the same time that scores on tests given by the Kansas education establishment show large improvements. We need to investigate so that we understand the source of this difference. The Kansas education bureaucracy resists such efforts.

The cost of a suitable education

The issue of what an education in Kansas should cost is again being examined by courts. This should provide an opportunity to examine the cost studies used by the court. The Kansas Policy Institute has published Kansas Primer on Education Funding: Volume II Analysis of Montoy vs. State of Kansas, which provides useful criticism and perspective of the cost studies used.

Alternative remedies

Besides ordering increased spending, courts should consider alternative remedies. These might take the form of increased opportunities for parents to escape failing public schools. An example is the parent trigger. This mechanism allows parents to force radical change on a school through the petition process.

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3 Comments

  1. Dan Knaup November 10, 2011

    Thanks for that very informative article, Bob. Very nice work!

  2. Brent Davis November 10, 2011

    It is very important to look at the financing formula. We must be perceived as working hard to provide for all children to get an excellent education. The goal is for all students in Kansas to achieve excellence as much as is within the power of each individual student. School choice would indeed be a significant factor in that and yet we do have significant choices in Kansas with various magnet schools and the online education programs, as well as the ability of people to move to preferable school districts, not as much choice as we would like to see outside the domain of teachers’ unions, for sure. The simplest place to begin is with incentives. Get the competitive juices flowing and engender the acceptance of innovation. The new “value added” compensation programs hold real promise. In fact, given the fact that we are still working under lower than projected revenues, it makes sense to make sure that all schools are funded reasonably. But the governor should include significant bonuses to school principals and their schools who achieve greater “value added” and reward teachers who do the same. This will start pressure from within the system to move to more freedom and fewer bureaucratic constraints. As change becomes the culture, we will find more opportunities to try more important innovations like tax credits, modeled after the Arizona model, which are even more important than charter schools in delivering real choices to the people. Any changes in the state system should be rolled out in a random way, in experimentally controlled fashion, so that changes can be effectively studied to see what methods work best. The competition and longing for freedom inspired by performance rewards is a great first step. We cannot keep giving more money to systems that waste resources. The money taken from taxpayers and wasted on inefficient education systems destroys jobs that poor citizens need to provide for their families and to help their children do better in school. From the best current research: we do not know what works for all students best, but what the current research does say is that it is good teachers and principals that can put more kids into their skilled care and fewer in the hands of poor teachers. The best we can do is to find a way to reward those who improve test scores most: give one set of rewards for improvement of the top students, one set of rewards for most overall school improvement, and one set of rewards for improvement in each special needs category. Everyone’s scores must be public, though anonymous to protect individuals. As different ways of doing things start proving results we will see a greater openness to innovation in controlled ways. I encourage you to read as much of Eric Hanushek as you can, the leading education economist and he’s spot on.
    His magazine: EducationNext
    http://educationnext.org/
    His fairly recent book: Schoolhouses, Statehouses and Courthouses:
    http://www.amazon.com/Schoolhouses-Courthouses-Statehouses-Funding-Achievement-Americas/dp/0691130000/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1242745179&sr=8-8
    Eric Hanushek’s website:
    http://edpro.stanford.edu/hanushek/content.asp?contentId=61
    Some important papers to start with:
    Proof from Texas that teachers make the difference NOT money.
    “Teachers, Schools, and Academic Achievement,” (with Steven G. Rivkin and John F. Kain) Econometrica 73(2), March 2005, pp. 417-458.
    Current state of education research.
    “Education Production Functions: Evidence from Developed Countries” in Dominic J. Brewer and Patrick J. McEwan, ed. Economics of Education (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2010): pp. 132-136. [reprinted in Eva Baker, Barry McGaw and Penelope Peterson, International Encyclopedia of Education (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2010)].
    Overview of the failure of throwing money at schools, reviews all research from 1966-1995:
    “The Failure of Input-based Schooling Policies,” Economic Journal 113 ,February 2003, pp. F64-F98.

  3. Nash November 12, 2011

    Governor Brownback is intent on screwing up the formula by shifting the funding from the state to local governments. There is already one lawsuit because the state has not properly funded education. If the Governor’s proposed changes to the formula goes through there will be higher taxes at the local level.

    Bob, Dale Dennis is also on record agreeing with KPI, but he also notes the balances in the fund should be replaced. I did not see that noted in your blog post. I assume since you point out mistakes The Wichita Eagle makes, you might want to explain Mr. Dennis’ whole position on school funding balances in your reporting.

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