Recent News and Commentaries

As you might expect, school funding is one of the big issues in state policy debates, as well as in Wichita more specifically. Here’s a quick roundup of some recent news from people affiliated with the Kansas Policy Institute.

But first let’s start with one of our friends, Bob Weeks, who writes Wichita Liberty.

In Wichita schools present case for spending to public, he talks about his visit to a school board meeting. Restricted funds account for 60 percent of the district’s budget. That’s a fair point to remember, but as a reader reminds us (in a comment he left on the story), money is fungible. That is, if the district receives $100 for X, it won’t have to spend $100 in unrestricted funds for X. To the extent that the district would have done X anyway–and that’s an unknown–the restriction doesn’t mean much.

Ideally, there ought to be few restrictions on how a district spends the money. We should, after all, be buying educational opportunities (directly) and outcomes (indirectly). The Legislature ought to allocate a fixed amount of money for each student (perhaps spending more for students at risk of failure, or learning English) and let the student take the money to any school, or at least any public school. Let one school spend relatively more on, say, technology and less on teacher in-service days, while another does the reverse. Let parents decide which model of education they prefer.

Weeks also makes the point–and it’s one that should always be remembered–that while districts receive about $4,000 a year in state aid for each student, it’s not the only source of income. In the case of Wichita, it’s about half the total amount. It would be like a waitress saying “my income is down because I’m working fewer hours” and neglecting the fact that she may actually be making more in tips. When we talk about school funding we should not forget the total revenue that schools take in.

Another post, “Artificial turf meets Wichita public schools board,” is a report from an anonymous citizen who attended a school meeting. The post reminds me that schools are not immune from the principal-agent problem.

One economist describes the problem this way:

The difficult but extremely important and recurrent organizational design problem of how organizations can structure incentives so that people (“agents”) who are placed in control over resources that are not their own with a contractual obligation to use these resources in the interests of some other person or group of people actually will perform this obligation as promised — instead of using their delegated authority over other people’s resources to feather their own nests at the expense of those whose interests they are supposed to be serving (their “principals”). Enforcing such contracts will involve transaction costs (often referred to as agency costs), and these costs may sometimes be very high indeed.

It’s a problem that afflicts private businesses as well as government agencies, but the basic problem is this: How do you make sure that the people you’re paying are doing a good job? The public school industry, with its resistance to paying teachers for value-added performance, is exceptionally subject to this problem. In this story, the anonymous correspondent reports that almost every single person attending a “public” meeting on the budget worked at a public school. In other words, the members of the “public” were people who would directly benefit from the discussion. Talk about a conflict of interest! That conflict seemed quite obvious in the account of the evening, in which spending cuts and efficiencies were off the table.

I noticed that in the comments section, one person warned against cutting school employees, since that would contribute to unemployment. Cutting jobs may in fact be an unwise thing to do–but not simply because it would mean some (more) people are out of work. If that’s the only consideration, then schools become nothing more than make-work programs.

As a final note on this post, I noticed some unfortunate degree of nasty talk–people being compared to thugs, rapists, and terrorists. I suppose that’ s inevitable when people’s incomes are on the line. Remember, when government takes money from some people (taxpayers) and gives it to another (school employees, in this case), there’s going to be rancor. The possibility for rancor is perhaps higher for schools than for other government programs, such as parks, policing, public health, and so forth. Why that is so is a fascinating topic for another day.

Wichita school employee-student ratio drops has a graph that summarizes the fact that over time, there are more district employees for each student. Why is that? One reason may be that we expect more and more out of schools. Another, as two readers pointed out, might be that students are more troublesome than ever before, and thus require more handling. Maybe. But some charter schools in LA and other places do well with large classes and little in way of “student support” staff. Some of the need for staff can be removed if the school has the right leadership and atmosphere.

Another reason for increased employment–which is to say, decreased efficiency–is that our public leaders have created so much red tape that it requires a small army to keep the wheels of overhead spinning. Another might be that the district has hired more teachers so as to have fewer students in each class. ( I don’t know if this is the case, and the cost-effectiveness of making classes smaller is questionable, as long as we’re not talking about, say, having no more than 15 students in any class.)

An earlier post on the subject offers more details.

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