The Kansas House of Representatives has failed, both in committee and on the floor, to pass legislation enabling tax credit scholarships for low-income and special needs students. This marks a low point in the legislative session, and it appears that Kansas schoolchildren will need to wait another year to have the same freedom and opportunity that children in many states enjoy.
Listening to the debate was an experience in frustration at the arguments of defenders of the status quo and the inability of reformers to counter. An example is Representative Jim Ward of Wichita. In his remarks, Ward started by saying he had to “categorically reject” the arguments that schools are not meeting the needs of students, and that we are not educating world-class students. He mentioned several examples, adding that our public schools are doing an excellent job.
Rep. Ward’s anecdotal evidence aside, the broader picture of Kansas schools is not as glowing. Many in Kansas say that our schools are much better than Texas schools. They cite National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores. When reporting scores for all students, Kansas has the highest scores, except for one tie. But when we look at subgroups, all the sudden the picture is different: Texas has the best scores in all cases, except for two ties. Similar patterns exist for previous years. See Kansas school test scores, in perspective for tables.
Kansas students, considering the entire state, score better than Texas students, that is true. It is also true that Texas white students score better than Kansas white students, Texas black students score better than Kansas black students, and Texas Hispanic students score better than or tie Kansas Hispanic students. The same pattern holds true for other ethnic subgroups.
Comparing Kansas to the nation: Kansas does better than the national average in all cases. But if we look at the data separated by racial/ethnic subgroups, something different becomes apparent: Kansas lags behind the national average in some of these areas. See Kansas school supporters should look more closely for tables.
Ward then claimed that Kansas schools are “operating on a per-pupil funding from 1992.” I don’t have figures going back that far, but as can be seen in the following chart, school spending has been rising over the long haul, even when allowing for inflation.
While Rep. Ward spun a tale of a handful of very expensive special education students, he — like other public school spending advocates — wants you to ignore the entirety of school spending and just focus on a small part of that spending.
Ward then turned to the purported lack of accountability and oversight of the schools that might receive tax credit scholarship money. He praised how the state holds Kansas public schools accountable.
The reality, however, is different. First, Kansas has low standards, compared to other states.
Further, Kansas standards have declined over the years. Last year Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker wrote that she is proud of student achievement in Kansas: “Since 2001, the percentage of students statewide who perform in the top three levels on state reading assessments has jumped from about 60 percent to more than 87 percent. In math, the jump has been from just more than 54 percent to nearly 85 percent.”
This rise in performance, however, is only on tests that the Kansas education establishment controls. On every measure of student performance that is independent, this rising trend in student achievement does not appear. In some measures, for some recent years, the performance of Kansas students has declined.
How can it be that one series of tests scores are rising, but not others? Kansas school administrators don’t have a good answer for this. But there is a good reason: The Kansas test scores are subject to manipulation for political reasons.
In 2006 Kansas implemented new tests, and the state specifically warns that comparisons with previous years — like 2001 — are not valid. A KSDE document titled Kansas Assessments in Reading and Mathematics 2006 Technical Manual states so explicitly: “As the baseline year of the new round of assessments, the Spring 2006 administration incorporated important changes from prior KAMM assessments administered in the 2000 — 2005 testing cycle. Curriculum standards and targets for the assessments were changed, test specifications revised, and assessed grade levels expanded to include students in grades 3-8 and one grade level in high school. In effect, no comparison to past student, building, district, or state performance should be made.” (emphasis added.)
Despite this warning, DeBacker and Kansas school superintendents make an invalid statistical comparison. This is not an innocent mistake.
On other tests, only 28 percent of Kansas students are ready for college-level work in all four subjects the ACT test covers. While this result was slightly better than the national average, it means that nearly three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates need to take one or more remedial college courses.
Is this the accountability that Kansans like Rep. Ward are promoting? Compared to the accountability that parents can exercise when they have a credible threat of sending their child to a different school?
Kansas now faces the danger of falling behind other states in school reform measures such as charter schools, schools choice, teacher tenure reform, and collective bargaining reform. Somehow, other states are able to implement reforms that we in Kansas will not.