Kansas City Star as critic, or apologist

An editorial in the Kansas City Star criticizes a Kansas free-market think tank.

Kansas City Star editorial writer Steve Rose penned a column accusing Kansas Policy Institute of lies and distortions in its analysis and reporting on Kansas government.1 Here, we take a critical look at a few accusations.

Rose: “To what end does the institute spew out its gross distortions? Its stated goal is to shrink government and to dramatically lower taxes. I would add: Regardless of the possible negative effect to services.”

friedman-spending-categories-2013-07It is axiomatic that government is the worse way to fund and provide services, with a very few exceptions. Why is this? When government spends money, the spending falls into one of two categories: First, it may be politicians and bureaucrats spending someone else’s money on yet someone else. Or, it may be politicians, bureaucrats, and special interest groups spending someone else’s money on themselves. When goods and services are provided by the private sector, it’s either people spending their own money on themselves, or spending their own money on someone else.

In the two latter cases, people have a strong incentive to get good value for their spending. In the first case, indifference and waste is the rule. In the second case — when spending someone else’s money on yourself — greed is the dominant motivation and consideration.2

We all would be better off if we relied less on the state and if more was provided by the private sector. Education is not one of the exceptions where government is a better alternative to private sector provision.

Rose: “The institute knows the public usually does not have either the time or inclination to get the details of the real story. The headline numbers stick, not the long, boring details of the truth.”

Kansas school spending per student, ratio of state aid per pupil to base state aid per pupil, 2014
Kansas school spending per student, ratio of state aid per pupil to base state aid per pupil, 2014
The irony here is that it is our state’s newspapers that have left out the truth. Much reporting and editorializing has focused only on base state aid per pupil.3 While base state aid per pupil did fall, total state spending per pupil rose. Data available from the Kansas State Department of Education shows that the ratio of total state spending to base state aid has generally risen since the adoption of the school finance formula two decades ago. For the school year ending in 1993 the ratio was 0.7, meaning that state aid was less than base state aid. For the school year ending in 2014, the ratio was 1.85, or 2.6 times as much as in 1993. This means that while base state aid per pupil for 2014 was $3,838, total spending by the state was $7,088 per pupil.4

(While the school funding formula has been replaced by the block grants, the weightings were baked into the grant amounts.)

I think that this qualifies as the “long, boring details of the truth” that Rose complains of. I wonder if he understands this. All he has to do is retrieve data from Kansas State Department of Education.

As far as the public’s level of knowledge of school funding, polls commissioned by Kansas Policy Institute show the public grossly uninformed about school finance.5 If you don’t trust a poll administered by Survey USA in which the text of all questions is revealed, know that surveys of the nation produce similar results.6

Rose: “As for the lies about schools, the institute counts in its preposterous $14,000 number non-operating costs such as interest on the debt from bond issues patrons passed in previous elections. It counts contributions to the retirement fund for teachers. It counts pass-through federal money that costs the state nothing.”

I don’t know where Rose gets the $14,000 spending number, but here are some actual per-pupil figures reported by KSDE for some large districts in northeast Kansas:7 Olathe: $12,803. Blue Valley: $13,168. Shawnee Mission: $12,273. Kansas City: $15,936. (For the entire state: $13,124.)

Yes, these numbers include interest on debt incurred from borrowing to build school facilities. Rose seems to say this money should not be counted as part of the ongoing cost of schools. But where should it be counted? Capital costs like these can’t be ignored, yet the Kansas school spending establishment often deflects attention from them, contending these costs “don’t get into the classroom.” Irony alert: These costs are the classroom.

Retirement fund costs for teachers? If not for schools and teachers, would the state have this cost? So where should these costs be charged?

Whether we’re spending too much (or not enough) on these items is another matter. But classifying them properly should not be controversial. Rose’s criticism is characteristic of the political class and its enablers. When the actual cost of government is revealed, the response is to attack the messenger, and truth is cast aside.

But Rose is correct about one thing: Pass-through federal money costs the state nothing. It is the state’s taxpayers that pay the federal government so it can send funds back to Kansas as — according to Steve Rose — money without cost.

NAEP scores for Kansas reading, grade four.
NAEP scores for Kansas reading, grade four.
Finally, Rose defends government services. The public is being “served well,” he says, with “superb services.” I wonder if he’s examined scores for Kansas schoolchildren on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. On this test, which is the same in all states, we find these results: For Kansas white students, 42 percent are proficient in reading at grade four. For Kansas black students, only 15 percent are proficient, and 20 percent of Kansas Hispanic students. Similar gaps appear in reading at grade eight, and in math at grades four and eight.8

I’m not satisfied with this, and I don’t think Steve Rose and the Kansas City Star should be. This is the saddest thing about Rose’s column. It used to be that newspaper editorial writers worked to hold government accountable. Now we have this newspaper making excuses for government and unfactually criticizing those who work for accountability. It’s Kansas schoolchildren, especially poor and minority, that suffer the most.


Notes

  1. Rose, Steve. Phony numbers meant to smear superb services. Kansas City Star, July 2, 2016. Available at www.kansascity.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/steve-rose/article87288257.html.
  2. For more on this, see Friedman: The fallacy of the welfare state, available at wichitaliberty.org/economics/friedman-the-fallacy-of-the-welfare-state-2/.
  3. Weeks, Bob. Wichita school spending: The grain of truth. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-kansas-schools/wichita-school-spending-the-grain-of-truth/.
  4. Weeks, Bob. Kansas school weightings and effects on state aid. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-kansas-schools/kansas-school-weightings-and-effects-on-state-aid/.
  5. Weeks, Bob. Survey finds Kansans with little knowledge of school spending. Available at wichitaliberty.org/wichita-kansas-schools/survey-finds-kansans-little-knowledge-school-spending/.
  6. Education Next. Results from the 2015 Education Next Poll. Available at educationnext.org/2015-ednext-poll-interactive/.
  7. Kansas State Department of Education. Total Expenditures by District. Available at www.ksde.org/Agency/Fiscal-and-Administrative-Services/School-Finance/Budget-Information/Total-Expenditures-by-District.
  8. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This table available at nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/subject/publications/stt2015/pdf/2016008KS4.pdf.

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