Category Archives: School Finances

Kansas Education Spending 1969-2007

If Kansas doubles the amount of money it spends on schools, will that be enough?

This afternoon I’ve been looking through the Digest of Education Statistics, a massive report compiled by the U.S. Department of Education. It’s a compilation of information from across the country, so it’s useful for making comparisons across the states.

You can also use the book to detect trends over time. The information isn’t as current as state reports, but that’s because it takes a while for all the data from 50 states to trickle in.

Even so, here’s one way of looking at spending by Kansas schools. It’s of “current expenditures,” which is to say that it doesn’t include capital costs (money spent on building construction). So it actually underestimates public investment in public schools. The numbers are, though, adjusted for inflation (the CPI) and per-pupil attendance.

YEAR and PER-PUPIL spending (Table 185)

1970 … $3,916

1980 … $5,353

1990 … $7,152

2000 .. $7,870

2007 ..  $9,585

That’s a 244 percent increase.

A 244-percent per-pupil increase.

A 244-percent, adjusted-for-inflation increase.

A 244-percent, adjusted-for-inflation increase that doesn’t include money spent on capital expenses.


Quote of the Day

“Instead of trying to figure out how to get more money for education, schools across the state are figuring out how to get more education for our money. We should all follow their examples. And while we are at it, we must channel the resources we do have directly to student learning.” — Tony Bennett, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction

How many districts put their spending data online?

Concerned citizens ought to be able to easily find out how much a school district spends, and on what. But it doesn’t always turn out that way.

In Michigan, the legislature enacted a law requiring districts to post, in detail, financial information on a website.

Districts in Kansas post some information on line, but the quality of the information could be improved by requiring a uniform chart of accounts, among other ideas.

Sales tax holidays are not good policy

Back-to-school sales are just around the corner,  if not already here. How about a “sale” on sales taxes? Some states have at various times waived sales taxes on various items, such as school supplies, for a limited amount of time.

The Tax Foundation reports that having a tax holiday is not a good idea. Tax holidays don’t do much for the economy, are complicated to administer, and have discriminatory effects. As far as I can tell, Kansas has not had such a holiday.

Are you smarter than the average taxpayer?

How much money do schools have to spend–too little, too much, or just enough? It’s hard to tell if you don’t know the record.

The Kansas Policy Institute, with whom I am a fellow, put together some newspaper ads a while ago (before the Legislature raised tax rates) that are worth highlighting even now.

The ads feature six questions about state aid and school funding that are applicable to the entire state. There is also a charter for each district within a particular region of the state, listing the district name, spending amounts for recent years, and percentages changes in the money available for spending.

Check out the education section of the data warehouse for the PDFs of the ads, which groups schools by counties. Note there is some overlap in the ads.

  1. Shawnee, Douglas, Johnson, Pottawatomie, and Wabaunsee
  2. Butler and Sedgwick
  3. Lyon, Chase, Coffey, Greenwood, Morris, and Ossage
  4. Allen, Anderson, Coffey, Neosho, Labette, Wilson, and Woodson
  5. Bourbon, Crawford, Cherokee, Allen, Neosho, and Labette
  6. Montgomery, Elk, Chautauqua, Wilson, Neosho, and Labette
  7. Cowley, Sumner, Chautauqua, and Elk
  8. Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth, and Miami

You can find the numbers at the Kansas State Department of Education. If the link is broken (the department does change the website from time to time), just look for “Total Expenditures by District.”

Kansas in the national perspective

The Census Bureau publication, “Public Education Finances” is a good starting point if you want to compare spending on public schools in Kansas to spending across the country. The full document is 124 pages as an Adobe Acrobat file, and there are some sizable Excel files. (One file is 14MB, another is 33MB). You can find the portal to the report here.

From a national perspective, Kansas spends, overall, like the average state, but spends more than the average state when compared with its total spending.

According to the report (table 8: Per Pupil Amounts for Current Spending of Public Elementary-Secondary School Systems by State: 2007-08),

  1. Kansas ranked 27th in the country in “current” spending at $9,967 per student. Current means it excludes capital costs such as new or remodeled buildings.
  2. Kansas was 22nd in the country in spending on instruction, at $5,922 per student. This category included salaries and wages as well as benefits.
  3. Kansas was 30th in the country in spending on support services, at  $3,296 per student. This category is further divided into pupil services, staff services, general administration, and school administration.
  4. Kansas was 19th in the country in spending on general and school administration (combined as one category), at $818 per student.

The report includes the Districts of Columbia as a state, so the median “state” would be 26. The numbers do not, as far as I know, take into account for the fact that the cost of living is higher on the Eastern seaboard than in the Midwest.

If you want to consider where education fits in with other public priorities, then you have to turn to the report 2008 Annual Surveys of State and Local Government Finances (you’ll find a press release, which offers a few highlights of the report, here.) According to Table 3 of that report, on average,

States and local governments dedicated 29 percent of their spending to elementary and secondary education.

  1. Vermont spent the most, at 37 percent of its budget.
  2. Alaska spent the least, at 23 percent. (The District of Columbia was even lower, at 17 percent)
  3. Kansas spent 32 percent of its budget on schools, which ranked it 16th among the states.

There are probably several reasons why a state could rank where it did, but that’s a question for another day.

Census Bureau releases national numbers on education spending

The Census Bureau collects information about much more than the census. Here’s a press release the bureau issued on June 28, 2010, regarding taxpayer spending on schools nationally.


Public School Systems Spend More than $10,000 Per Pupil in 2008

In 2008, public school systems spent an average of $10,259 per pupil, a 6.1 percent increase over 2007. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia spent above this amount; 32 spent less.

These data come from Public Education Finances: 2008, which provides tables on revenues, expenditures, debt and assets (cash and security holdings) of elementary and secondary public school systems with data for the nation, states and school districts. The tables also include more detailed data on spending, such as instruction, school lunches, transportation and salaries, among others.

“This report on public school spending shows us how taxpayer money is being spent on education,” said Lisa Blumerman, chief of the Governments Division at the U.S. Census Bureau. “Public education is the single largest category of all state and local government expenditures. These data provide a detailed picture of how available resources are spent within the public education system.”

Public school systems received $582.1 billion in funding in 2008, up 4.5 percent from 2007. Of that amount, state governments contributed 48.3 percent, followed by local sources, which contributed 43.7 percent, and federal sources, which made up the remaining 8.1 percent (see Table 5).

Public school systems’ spending was up 6.0 percent in 2008, totaling $593.2 billion. Total current spending was $506.8 billion (85.4 percent), of which $304.8 billion went to instruction, followed by $175.9 billion, which went to support services, such as transportation and school maintenance (see Table 6).

Total school district debt increased by 7.9 percent in 2008 to $377.4 billion (see Table 10).

Other highlights:

  • States and state equivalents that spent the most per pupil were New York ($17,173), New Jersey ($16,491), Alaska ($14,630), the District of Columbia ($14,594), Vermont ($14,300) and Connecticut ($13,848) (see Table 11).
  • States that spent the least per pupil were Utah ($5,765), Idaho ($6,931), Arizona ($7,608), Oklahoma ($7,685) and Tennessee ($7,739).
  • Instructional salaries made up the largest spending category for public elementary and secondary education at $203.5 billion (40.2 percent) in 2008 (see Table 6).
  • The percentage of public school funding from the federal government was highest in Louisiana (16.8 percent), Mississippi (16.0 percent) and South Dakota (15.2 percent) and lowest in New Jersey (3.9 percent), Connecticut (4.2 percent) and Massachusetts (5.1 percent) (see Table 5).
  • The percentage of funding from state government was highest in Vermont (88.5 percent), which surpassed Hawaii (84.8 percent) this year, where elementary and secondary education is run by the state government, followed by Arkansas (76.0 percent). The percentage of funding from state government was lowest in Nebraska (33.0 percent), South Dakota (33.2 percent) and Illinois (33.8 percent).
  • Among states, the percentage of funding from local governments was highest in Illinois (58.2 percent), Nebraska (57.3 percent) and Connecticut (57.3 percent) and lowest in Hawaii (3.0 percent), Vermont (5.0 percent) and Arkansas (13.4 percent).
  • The $254.1 billion schools received from local sources included $218.4 billion from taxes and local government appropriations (see Table 4).
  • Property taxes accounted for 63.7 percent of revenue for public school systems from local sources.
The data used in the tabulations came from a census of all 15,569 public school districts. As such, they are not subject to sampling error. Although quality assurance methods were applied to all phases of data collection and processing, the data are subject to nonsampling error, including errors of response and miscoding. For more information, visit the Census Bureau’s Web site at <>.

SBOE calls for more money

At its monthly meeting yesterday, the Kansas State Board of Education called on the Legislature to increase spending on public schools.

According to the Lawrence Journal-World‘s Scott Rothchild, the board called on the Legislature to increase funding by 15%, or $471 million.

Walt Chappell cast the lone vote against the proposal, which carried 7-1, with Kathy Martin abstaining. John Bacon, who voted with the majority, feared that increasing spending by the amount called for by the board might lead to another tax increase. “Other board members,” according to Rothchild, “said the tax issue shouldn’t be part of their deliberations. They said they needed to represent education interests to the Legislature.”

Rachel Whitten of Kansas Reporter says that according to Dale Dennis of KSDE, fulfilling the request of the board “would require a significant revenue increase which could come in the form of income or sales tax.”

The Legislature is the one organization in the state that does in fact need to consider “the tax issue” as well as the road issue, the public safety issue, the health-safety-net issue, and everything else. Unfortunately, thanks to the Legislature’s response to Montoy, the pattern has been set that the Legislature doesn’t have any discretion to what outside experts tell it to spend.

SBOE to discuss school funding next week

The Kansas State Board of Education will hold its monthly meeting next week, and it should be no surprise that money (and the desire for more of it) is on the agenda.

The Lawrence Journal World has a short write-up on the topic, but the KansasReporter has more, including details on a few grants the board may make. You can download the materials board members were given to prepare for the meeting (scroll down to the appropriate date). Depending on the abilities of your computer and Internet connection (as well as stamina to endure long meetings), you may be able to listen live on July 13 and 14.

U.S. House strips charter school, merit pay money from funding bill

Education Week reports that the U.S. House of Representatives has cut funding for education spending aimed at reform. The House cut $200 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund (merit pay) and $100 million for charter school startups. The money will be diverted to supplementing district budgets that exist today.

There’s a case to be made against federal funding of education, but if we are to have it, it should be for supplemental programs, not to shore up day-to-day operations. Unfortunately, that’s what the latest vote in the House is all about.

At Newsweek, meanwhile, Jonathan Alter says that Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.), who authored the shift, “wants to cut from the terrific 5 percent of education spending devoted to exciting reform proposals, not the 95 percent that went for other things.”

Alter sees this as a missed opportunity: “After taking on the teachers’ unions with Race to the Top, Obama has decided to go easy on the unions when it comes to challenging seniority rules. How disappointing. Rigid ‘last hired, first fired’ rules are a disaster for schoolchildren.” He calls it “unconscionable.” Alter continues,  “Seniority systems might make some sense on assembly lines, but have no place in education.”

How much did that diploma cost?

In Connecticut, the Yankee Institute came up with an interesting approach for comparing school districts: It calculated the cost per diploma for each of the state’s districts. The findings were surprising:

The average Connecticut high school graduate cost taxpayers about $133,000 from kindergarten through senior year, according to new research by the Yankee Institute. For high school graduates in the city of Hartford, which has the state’s most expensive graduates, that figure climbed to just under $200,000 per graduate, the data show.

But the lowest-cost district spent only 53% of the amount spent by the most-expensive district. Is their education half as good?

Kansas schools: We need more money

To paraphrase an article in the Kansas Reporter, school districts across the state say that the recent tax increases will keep them from losing any more ground, but it won’t help them a lot.

It also quotes former SBOE chair Sen. Steve Abrams, who says that “Using the current paradigm I can understand how the school districts need more and more money.”

Some districts will cut teaching positions, though others won’t.

The need to cut spending should, but probably won’t, focus attention on one important reform that schools everywhere should implement: Change the first-in-first-out rule for dismissing teachers during budget crunches.

As a rule, teachers in their first two or three years of employment are not as effective as teachers who have worked those first difficult years. So laying off those teachers may not be the most harmful step to take, if the goal is to maintain an effective teaching corps.

But beyond those first three years, there’s no relationship between teacher longevity and teacher effectiveness. To get the most bang for the buck–that is, do spend money in the way that does the best good for students–schools should develop means of identifying the most effective teachers and then making sure that that information is used when it’s time to cut staffing positions.

Teacher unions will tell you either that all teachers are effective, or that it’s impossible to quantify teacher effectiveness. But it’s logically impossible for all teachers to be equally, highly effective: There’s no reason to expect that normal variations in worker excellence and productivity don’t exist in the teaching corps, just as they do among doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and other professionals. The hard but necessary task is to find ways to identify and act on those differences.

Mullinville Schools (indirectly) attacks Kansas Policy Institute

While looking up something else, I noticed that the Mullinville Schools (USD 424) offer a swipe at people who have been pointing out certain inconvenient truths about taxpayer support for public schools. The commentary by Darrell Kohlman, district superintendent and principal of the middle school. Mr. Kohlman doesn’t name Kansas Policy Institute, but I have a feeling KPI is one group in his sites.

Here’s what he wrote in an article titled “School Spending,” with a published date of May 11, 2010. I have emphasized certain text in bold, and added my own comments in italics.

It is true that school spending at the state level has increased over the past five years; there is no denying that fact. But there is some misleading information being presented in ads in print media as well as commercials on television. These ads are sponsored by organizations that are financed by individuals as well as corporations that have an interest beyond saving the “regular tax payer” money. Since schools do not have the financial or the human resources that these groups have I would like to point out some facts about the increased spending that has occurred in the last five years in Kansas schools including USD #424.

One fact to remember is that through a court case that some school districts [including Mullinville] filed against the State of Kansas it was decided by the Kansas Supreme Court that there were areas that were significantly underfunded. The Kansas Supreme Court ordered that these areas of underfunding be corrected. So it should be no surprise that the legislatures had to add to the funding at a higher than inflation rate to make up the ground. The students in the areas of Special Education, At-Risk, and bi-lingual education have benefited from this increased funding and test scores for these areas have increased at a higher rate than the funding increased they received.

Another area that schools have shown an increase in spending was for KPERS contributions. KPERS is the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System and it has been determined by legislative studies that it was being underfunded, so the legislators decided to increase the funding by 58.9 percent. Local schools have no control over the benefits for KPERS and the funding is simply “passed through” local school budgets. Other than increasing the overall local district budget it has no impact on student learning. [Teacher compensation has no impact on student learning? Why then do I sometimes hear that teachers are underpaid?] This increasing trend will likely continue until the state gets the KPERS system more stable.

The Legislature has also recommended new action that pushes the decision to raise taxes to the local Board of Education. An example of this is when the Legislature voted to increase the maximum Local Option Budget from 25 percent to 31 percent; which is a 24 percent increase in spending authority. This is an example of the legislatures putting the tax burden on local patrons instead of spreading it out state wide. The House Education Budget Committee has recommended HB 2739 which would increase the local burden again with two new local funding options. [For the record, I think we need to fund schooling more through state dollars, on a follow-the-child basis, than through local taxes. In any case, how does the fact that districts have increased taxing authority make the presentation of spending trends misleading? As I recall, the purpose of pointing out this trend is to argue that schools have not been underfunded. In that context, where that funding comes from is not relevant.]

Another area of increased spending was the use of federal stimulus funding. These short term increases in funds were used to offset the short-fall in the Kansas State Budget. Again another area that federal government has used these funds were for students in special education and Title I programs to help increase test scores by the students served by these federally mandated programs. This is short term funding that will not last past 2010-2011 school year. When this funding ends it will need to be replaced at the state or local level. [This matters only if our only concern is state aid to schools. If, however, we look at the broader picture of public funding, then it’s reasonable to include federal funding.]

As you can see while it is true that funding as well as spending by K-12 education has increased over the past several years it is important to see where that funding is coming from, how it has helped to produce great results, and that cost continue to increase as well. School budgets are not as cut and dried as your own personal budgets.  Many areas of a school district’s budget are controlled by laws. If you have any questions regarding the local budget or how different scenarios that legislators are working on impact USD #424 or rural schools feel free to contact me at 548-2521.

Will a sales tax increase help Kansas?

So the Legislature has done it. Again. They’ve raised tax rates rather than cut spending back to the levels of a few years ago.

Gov. Mark Parkinson applauded the Legislature. According to the Lawrence Journal-World,

After the vote, Parkinson issued a statement, saying the increased tax would prevent “permanent damage to our children’s education, our communities’ public safety and the care we provide to vulnerable citizens.” He added, “No tax is a good tax, but a penny is a small price to pay for a state as great as ours.”

Parkinson trivializes the economic impact of the increase by calling it “a penny.” But I want to move beyond economic analysis to focus on the claim that not raising the tax would cause “permanent damage to our children’s education.” Parkinson, like most people, equates the size of a school budget with the education of a child.

If we’re going to have a government-run system of schools, they will of course require some money to operate. But I think the question of how much they need has gotten short shrift. Have, in fact, schools spend down their unencumbered balances to a prudent level? How about increasing the efficiency of schools? The Division of Legislative Post Audit tried to look at district efficiency, but districts put forth some political pressure, and the LPA’s work was called off. In its report on school funding, Augenblick & Myers ignored the more efficient districts.

In short, it’s entirely possible that Kansas is spending more money that it needs to on schools.  We don’t know for sure, but if that’s the case, a tax increase is unnecessary.

KPI criticized for stance on unspent balances

The Kansas Policy Institute (with which I am affiliated) has certainly gotten some press with its work on unspent balances that school districts have. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it’s not.

Pat Maloney, a member of the Kansas House from Kingman, recently criticized KPI in an op-ed published by the Kiowa County Signal. The headline is “Maloney accuses KPI of misleading public on education.”

I’ll say first-up that the headline should say “Maloney accuses KPI of misleading public on school funding.”

Why? Education sometimes occurs in schools, and sometimes it doesn’t. We need to remember that distinction, lest our view of education get frozen in time.

But to the substance of the criticism, Maloney says, in part:

When you hear a story about education funding in Kansas, ask yourself, “Would schools really lay off teachers and cancel important programs if they had millions of extra dollars to spend?” The answer is no. These funds belong to our students of public education, and should not be taken by the state for other purposes.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding what the representative is saying, but I’m confident that KPI’s president, Dave Trabert, is NOT saying that the Legislature take unspent account balances that schools have on their books and use the money to, say, pay for the state’s Medicaid program. He is staying, instead, that perhaps schools can spend down some of their reserves, so we can avoid tax increases, spending cuts, or both.

Certainly it is prudent, as Maloney says, for schools to maintain reserves, as a cash-flow management tool. But it’s also prudent to ask how much of a reserve is enough, and, when leaders determine the reserves are more than sufficient, start spending them.

For the record, here’s a press release that KPI released on April 30. I’ll emphasize some of the key text:

Analysis of K-12 spending projections for FY 2010 shows that total spending is up about $320 million over last year, with about $220 million of the increase in current operating costs and the rest is in Capital and Debt Service.  174 districts are predicting higher operating expenditures this year; 77 districts have reductions of less than 5% and 42 districts have reductions greater than 5%.

Total revenue is $5.616 billion or just $50 million less than last year.  Districts spent down their unencumbered carryover reserves by $370 million to offset the revenue decline and fund the $320 million spending increase.

Taxpayers will naturally wonder how spending could be higher after all the budget cuts.  Kansas Policy Institute’s review of district budgets found that schools planned to spend $612 million more this year ($297 million in operating costs and $315 million in Capital and Debt Service).  They therefore ‘cut’ $77 million from their operating budgets and $215 million from their capital and debt service budgets…but still spent more than last year.

Kansas Legislative Research Division collected school spending and ending fund balance projections from each school district earlier this month.  Dale Dennis and Sara Barnes at KSDE confirmed that the way KPI calculated spending and reconciled the increase against declining fund balances and the revenue change is accurate.

The statewide summary and individual district files can be found on the KLRD web site.  A summary analysis of district spending and ending balances and analysis of spending by district is available in the Data Warehouse on Kansas Policy Institute web site.

Districts’ proven ability and willingness to use their carryover funds is good news for taxpayers and teachers.  As things stand today in the state budget debate, it appears the worst that might occur is that schools have to offset half of their decline in federal stimulus dollars, as the House budget proposes to replace $85 million.  Districts say they will still have $515 million of carryover money remaining in funds that can either be spent down as they did this year or transferred with legislative authority, giving them the ability to offset their ARRA loss and without making cuts.

The House Education Committee agreed that schools should be able to spend more from their unencumbered funds.

The Wichita Eagle, meanwhile, said in an editorial that school districts aren’t pleased at Trabert’s suggestions. It repeats the argument that districts need reserves, suggesting that Trabert is unaware of that fact. That is certainly not true; the claim is not that reserves are unnecessary, only that they are more generous than is prudent given the budget situation.

The Eagle also quotes some unhappy district officials (“”It is difficult to hear that,” said one, “a lie,” said another). It also quotes Dale Dennis:

Trabert and Kansas Policy Institute also keep citing Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, who said that districts could use some fund balance money. What they don’t mention is that Dennis thinks doing so without a way to replace that money would be a terrible idea.

“They only tell half the story,” Dennis complained about KPI.

Finally, the Eagle firmly establishes itself in the camp of district officials:

It doesn’t matter what superintendents say or how often they explain the facts, Evans said; the groups keep repeating the same misleading claims.

Which is frustrating, to say the least.

In an op-ed, also published by the Eagle, Trabert responded:

A recent Wichita Eagle editorial said school superintendents are frustrated by what they say are misleading claims about school spending and the availability of large fund balances.  The Eagle editorial board believes their frustrations are justified, but again, they are only getting one side of the story.

It is indeed frustrating to have school districts and their lobbyists claim for over a year that their fund balances can’t or shouldn’t be used, only to learn that most districts now admit they are using some of that money to pay for a spending increase this year.  Districts started the year with about $700 million in funds that could be used and they now report those balances are being spent down by $191 million. They used that money to increase their current operating costs this year.  Districts said they were being forced to dramatically reduce spending, but they just reported that total spending will increase $262.8 million this year, with $163.4 million of the increase in current operating costs. 174 districts statewide now admit they will spend more on operating costs this year, including 6 districts in Sedgwick County and 4 districts in Butler County.

It’s true that they used some of their reserves to pay bills when the state chose to pay them late.  We encouraged legislators to force the state to pay schools on time and now there’s new legislation being considered to require prompt payment.  It’s also true that those reserve balances represent aid received in prior years that wasn’t spent.  This year and next seem like good times to use the money as originally intended.

Districts have claimed aid per-pupil is severely reduced but now admit that KPI ads are correct; total aid per pupil is only 3% less than last year and 26% higher than five years ago.

The editorial also said I “…suggested schools may be making certain budget cuts deliberately to anger parents.”  That’s another of those frustrating distortions.  I said districts were encouraged in public meetings by members of the 2010 Commission and the State Board of Education to make ‘high profile’ changes that would anger parents and generate support for tax increases.  We did not say any districts took that advice, but noted that they certainly had options to avoid classroom cuts, such as using their carryover reserves to offset their expected 3% decline in per-pupil aid or reducing non-instructional operating costs, which jumped 25% in the preceding four years.

Kansas Policy Institute is simply refuting claims made by districts and their lobbyists, and they may be frustrated at having to explain the rest of the story that we discovered.  Our research and studies published by Legislative Post Audit show schools can meet state requirements and operate much more efficiently – that should be seen as good news.  Instead, taxpayers have been fed a steady stream of misleading claims to justify an unnecessary tax increase that will put thousands more Kansans out of work.

Now that is frustrating.

Will schools tap unused funds?

From Kansas Reporter:

Kansas House Education Budget committee members voted Monday to give schools across the state more flexibility to replace their shares of $85.9 million federal educational stimulus money that is scheduled to vanish next year.

That’s good news, both for schools and for taxpayers. Schools get more money to spend, and taxpayers don’t have to incur as much of a tax increase–or maybe none at all. Whether that happens, though, is likely to be affected by the overall budget plan, which the Legislature is debating (again) today.

But the interesting question is “why does federal stimulus money need to replaced anyway?”

Kansas got into this situation through a series of steps. Last year, the federal money helped the state avoid cutting spending (in education or elsewhere), raising taxes, or dipping even more into reserves. In other words, it was a delay tactic, a short-term tactic based on the assumption that tax revenues would sufficiently increase over the following months.

And before that, the state got into that situation because legislators were unable to agree on ways to cut spending in non-education portions of the budget. And before that, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to spend more on schools. And before that … and that … and that.

The Wichita Eagle, Kansas Policy Institute, and the Koch Brothers

The editorial board of the Wichita Eagle takes the Kansas Policy Institute to task for its recent work in addressing school funding. But what I find most interesting are the public comments, including this theme: Liar, liar, pants on fire! You’re bought by OIL MONEY!

Now, I don’t have a firm grasp on the institute’s funding, though I presume that its trustees are part of the donor base. (Are any of them named “Koch?”)  I’m always amused when the “bought and paid for” line comes out. Seriously. A statement about X, Y, or Z is true or it is false, regardless of who says it, or even why. Certainly, you might want to keep the question “who benefits” in mind, but it’s not the determinant factor in whether a statement is true or not.

I also see that someone says “you’re making up those numbers!” Actually, no. They come from the Kansas State Department of Education. Would you like to accuse them of fabricating numbers? Go ahead. Now, I know the line “Figures lie and liars figure,” but again, look at the evidence and come to a conclusion rather than shouting.

Now, as to the Eagle, it says that KPI took out an ad criticizing the governor for increasing spending by $380 million in his budget. The Eagle further says that $80 million of that is “for a scheduled payment increase to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System and the state’s debt-service payments (this year the state only paid the interest on its debts, not the principal).” KPERS certainly needs the money; it’s been underfunded for a while, and the state should fund what it has promised. But there are three ways of dealing with a gap between promised outlays and the assets of the fund:

1. Raise taxes

2. Cut spending elsewhere

3. Lower promises made to new employees and reduce future increases in payouts.

Which option do you think the Eagle board favors?

The Eagle mentions also that $300 million of the increase is actually meant to cover the hole left by the fact that last year’s $300 million in bonus money from the federal “stimulus” law won’t be there. Well, yes, that money won’t be there. But what sorts of budget cuts did it forestall last time out? Given the way government budgeting typically works, I suspect that the bonus money only set Kansas up for steeper cuts once it ran out.

Supporters of higher school taxes are ignorant of historical record: Survey

The Kansas Policy Institute (with which I am affiliated) is causing some waves because it has asked residents of the state what they think about school funding–and some people in the education lobby don’t like what they’ve said.

Head to for full details, but here’s the essence. It’s common for people to think that schools are underfunded. But they underestimate the amount of money schools get–by 50 percent! In short, the more ignorant a person is about the amount of money schools have available, the more likely they are to support tax increases, and the more closely a person knows the actual record, the more likely he or she is to oppose tax increases.

Ignorance is bliss? Hardly.

Increase the sales tax? Views from the rally for more

Kansas Watchdog has a short review of yesterday’s rally for a tax increase.

Using Citizen Audit Committees to save money

How can we stretch our education dollars? One idea, which comes from a group in Connecticut, is to use a Citizens Audit Committee (PDF). It draws on the experience of Dr. Armand Fusco, who served as a superintendent there.

Fusco calls for citizens to set up such a committee, which serves as an independent, volunteer organization that keeps school boards honest. Call it oversight by crowdsourcing. The document provides suggestions for how to organize a committee (set up responsibilities, a charter, keep meetings private and exclude school employees, establish some way of training volunteers.)

Fusco also offers a list of documents and resources that a district may need. This is useful, though the terms may differ from state to state:

First up, the check register: “Each check entry should show its number, the recipient, dollar amount, the invoice number or warrant, and reference that tracks the check to a specific line item. If a check register does not show all of this information, then it can be assumed there is something to hide.”

Next up is the Master Teacher Schedule, which  “shows each classroom teacher, the subject or assignment for each period of the day, the room number, the number of students in each class, and the total students assigned per day.” Why is this important? “What will be found, particularly at the secondary level, are significant variations among teachers in terms of student loads, even within the same department.”

Things to look for include:

  • Asset management–how closely does the district track its assets?
  • Benefits–do part-time workers get full-time benefits?
  • Cash collections–how much and how are they tracked?
  • How are other services purchased, such as energy, insurance, legal services, and printing?

Certainly some suggestions won’t be popular, such as going to a year-round schedule. Neither will be the suggestion that school boards be aggressive in cutting spending:

The phrase [“fixed costs” is] often used in defense of budget increases is “costs are contractual or fixed,” falsely implying that they are irreversible labor expenses. Not only can union contracts be renegotiated, but they also only specify the salary to be paid an employee, not how many people are to be employed.
No cost is fixed because the vast majority of budget line items are estimates based on past spending that may not have been allocated:

The phrase often used in defense of budget increases is “costs are contractual or fixed,” falsely implying that they are irreversible labor expenses. Not only can union contracts be renegotiated, but they also only specify the salary to be paid an employee, not how many people are to be employed.No cost is fixed because the vast majority of budget line items are estimates based on past spending that may not have been allocated efficiently. The only fixed costs are bid orders, contracts, and federal and state mandates for programs, not staffing.

Ideally, your local school board should be doing these activities. But that doesn’t always happen, especially when it comes to the more aggressive suggestions in the report. That’s why having an independent watchdog is a good idea.

Fund my future?

The Capital-Journal has a photo from today’s rally (more taxes for schools) of a young girl named Savannah who holds  a sign that reads “Fund my future.”

A lot of economists would agree that it is a legitimate and desirable public function to fund education. That is, there’s a public interest in seeing to it that the girl, and other children, have the opportunity to learn, and in fact to get a public subsidy to do so.

But how should taxpayers’ dollars be used to fund Savannah’s education? Too often, what people are interested in is funding things besides education. You see it in the debate over district consolidation: Don’t consolidate these schools, because “towns will die.” In that case, money meant for education is spent on a particular set of schools that, according to this argument, provide not education as much as they do a community identity. Yet communities get their identities from for-profit (think of Hershey, Penn., or Wichita’s identity as a center of aviation) and non-profit, non-governmental organizations  (think of small towns that host private colleges) all the time, quite apart from a specific set of government-owned schools.

But back to Savannah. We want to make sure that she has the opportunity to learn. She might learn in a variety of settings: a traditional school in a school district, a magnet school within a district, a charter school, a private school, and a home-schooled setting.

The budget crunch requires us to think of the distinction between education and public schooling. The two often go hand-in-hand, but not always: Plenty of students drop out of public schools, or graduate with weak skills, while students outside public schools learn.

Kansans can still fund education without raising taxes. They should look for ways to economize on public schools: Consolidation may have some benefits, as might consolidating administrative services, putting more money into the classroom and less elsewhere, giving families grants to attend private schools (thereby reducing demand on public schools), and so forth.

The article, by the way, says that funding for public schools has been “slashed” by $287 million. To you and me, that’s a lot of money. But according to one report from KSDE, school districts in the state spent $5.6 billion in the 2008-09 school year. In comparison, $287 million is … 5 percent. Certainly not a pleasant sum to absorb if you’re an administrator, but “slash,” well, it seems to me that the word requires a greater amount than that.

How much do public schools spend? More than you think

Public schools need many reforms, one of which is a better, more easily understandable reporting of how much they actually spend.

The Cato Institute has a new report on school districts in the five biggest metropolitan areas in the  country. The result? “On average, per-pupil spending in these areas is 44 percent higher than officially reported.”

The report, by Adam Schaeffer, also has some interesting and surprising comparisons of private to public schooling: “public schools are spending 93 percent more than the estimated median private school.” It looks at school spending in the following areas: Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, and Washington DC.

One alleged advantage of government control over schools (public schools) over private ones is that they are subject to public scrutiny. But if we don’t know something as basic as how much the schools are spending, that advantage simply does not exist.

(By the way, the flip side of under-reported spending is grade inflation, a subject I’ve written about before.)

While the report does not discuss any metro areas in Kansas, it does touch on the ongoing “adequacy” lawsuit. Schaeffer writes, “Citizens need to know how much is being spent per child in order to judge whether the district has enough money to educate a child.”

In Kansas, one issue is the lack of a common chart of accounts across school districts. Another is the underreporting of liabilities held by KPERS, the pension program that includes teachers in the public schools.

Base Funding Doesn’t Tell All

Discussions of school funding typically focus on just one element of the funding formula, the base state aid per pupil. That’s the amount that the state legislature allocates for each “student unit.”

In December, the Kansas Legislative Research Department published a 28-page report (PDF) describing the formula. Looking through the report shows just how complex–some might say convoluted–is the process for funding schools.

You’d think that the number of students enrolled in a school would be the primary factor in how much money a school gets. And you’d be right, but only partly so, for when it comes to funding, some students are more equal than others.

Here’s a partial list of the various kinds of money that a district can get:

  1. Base state aid per pupil (BSAPP)
  2. Low-enrollment weighting
  3. High-enrollment, or correlational, weighting
  4. Transportation weighting
  5. Vocational education weighting
  6. Bilingual education weighting
  7. At-risk pupil weighting
  8. High-density at-risk pupil weighting
  9. Medium-density at-risk pupil weighting
  10. Non-proficient at-risk weighting
  11. School facilities weighting
  12. Ancillary [new building] school facilities funding
  13. Special education and related services funding
  14. Declining enrollment weighting
  15. Cost-of-living weighting

The first item on the list–the base state aid per pupil–is what gets the press. For example, the Kansas Reporter (also affiliated with the Kansas Policy Institute), says

The governor’s proposed combination of a one-cent sales tax increase and higher taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products will raise enough money to increase the state’s total education budget by $12 million, to $3.28 billion, and to increase basic state aid to students $50 per student, to an avearge $4,062, Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis told the Kansas State Board of Education at its January meeting.

But without the money from the proposed tax increases, education spending drops to $3.04 billion, and per pupil aid falls by $286 to $3,276, or about 1999 levels, Dennis reported. Cutting that deeply would force districts across Kansas to lay off teachers and other employees.

Can schools do the job with $3,276 per pupil? That doesn’t sound like much. Neither does $4,062. But remember, all those weightings (and other types of funding) add up.

As a quick look, consider these numbers, which you can find in Volume 3 of a series of reports by the Kansas Policy Institute:

$3,863 … $9,235

$3,863 … $9,707

$4,257 … $10,596

$4,316 … $11,558

$4,374 … $12,188

$4,400 … $12,660

What do these numbers represent? They’re numbers from school year 2003-04 through 2008-09. Both represent the per-pupil funding, on average, that districts in the state received in each of those years. The first column is the base funding from the state, before any weightings.  The second column is the total revenue that the “average” district received, after state weightings and other state money, after local revenues, and after federal grants.

So take a look at these numbers:







These numbers? They represent the percentage of total revenue that is supplied by the base aid amount.  Clearly, the base aid is an important though hardly the only element of school funding, so focusing on changes in that amount gives us an incomplete picture, at best.

Advocates of legal action against the Legislature (read: people) will point out that the percentage of revenues supplied by the state base aid has declined over the years. But that’s due in part to increases in non-base aid brought about by the Montoy lawsuit. And it should also be noted that when all funding sources are considered, per-pupil funding is UP. In fact, per-pupil revenue is up 32 percent in just six years. A slight pullback, then, should not be traumatic. An organization with managerial flexibility should be able to adjust to an overall cut of a percentage point or two.

For a variety of reasons relating to politics, however, schools are anything but flexible. And that’s a big part of the problem.

Stalling Efficiency, Pushing Tax Increases

As you probably know, Gov. Mark Parkinson gave his state-of-the-state address a few days ago. (You can read his prepared remarks here.)

He lavished praise on the state for its history in K-12 education:

While other states were shy to adopt public education, we embraced it.  Our leaders made the conscious decision clear back in the 1860s to spend money on public education. Their vision was to create a literate population that would become workers, then consumers and lead our state to prosperity. This commitment to public schools was not one time or intermittent; it was long-lasting. It is at the very essence of what makes Kansas, Kansas.

“Throughout our history this has worked.  We developed a world class public school system.  It is a system that outside entities consistently rate as one of the best in the country.  It is a system that has higher graduation rates and test scores than the national average.  It is a system that has provided every child a chance and has created the outstanding labor force that we dreamed of building. It happened because those that came before us had vision and the courage to make investments in our future.

Above-average test scores are good. But are they sufficient when fewer than half of students read at proficient on the “Nation’s Report Card?”I’ll get back to that in another commentary.

Parkinson also spoke about recent budget cuts and the need for efficiency: “We have cut $1 billion out of the state budget.  Like any organization, public or private, there was waste in state government.  That is inevitable.”

How about local schools? It would be foolish to expect that state government has waste but school districts do not. As Bob Weeks pointed out, Speaker Mike O’Neal, in his response to the governor’s remarks, “when all sources of funding are considered, schools have been cut less than 1.5% on average, and schools are receiving more funding than in fiscal year 2008.”

With that modest amount in cutbacks, there’s most likely more room for efficiency. Unfortunately, the budget cuts at the state level that point out the need for efficiencies have been used as an excuse to looking for them. Citing the need to respond to (slight) cutbacks in state aid, school districts pressured the Division of Legislative Post-Audit into putting a pause on efforts to produce efficiency audits.

If smarter spender isn’t the answer, what is? Raising taxes, of course. The Lawrence Journal-World notes that “Gov. Mark Parkinson’s proposal to funnel more money into state coffers by increasing sales and cigarette taxes drew applause from education officials in Lawrence.” No doubt, many officials throughout the state would agree.

Scott Morgan, president of the Lawrence school board, seems to think that what the state needs is not more efficient schools, but raising income taxes: “A graduated income tax is probably the fairest way [to increase tax revenue], but a property tax is more fair than a sales tax.”

Of course, the two states most known for having a graduated income tax are California and New York, two states that are all but technically broke, proving that yes, you can outspend your revenue base, even with a graduated income tax.

KPI President: Tax Increases Not Required

Dave Trabert, the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, recently addressed the issue of school funding in an op-ed published by the Wichita Eagle:

Tax increases and lawsuit not needed

Wichita Eagle, Sunday, January 10, 2010

A commentary by Kansas State Board of Education member David Dennis said that educators “just ask that (legislators) make their decisions based on accurate information, with the future of our students in mind” (“Fund balances won’t save schools,” Jan. 3 Opinion).

I completely agree, and just ask that educators do the same. Unfortunately, some have been making their case for tax increases and lawsuits with a healthy dose of inaccurate and misleading information.

For example, Dennis said a fellow board member “alleges” that schools started the current year with $700 million in carryover cash reserves (in addition to money for capital projects and bond payments) that could be used to fund education. This is no allegation. It is a fact that my organization obtained from the Kansas State Department of Education. Here are some other facts we discovered that have been confirmed by the department:

* Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis says schools can legally use those reserves for current expenses, freeing general-fund receipts for other purposes.

* That $700 million total has grown 53 percent over the past four years, which means that schools haven’t spent all the money they received.

* No independent audit of the necessary ending balances in each fund has been performed.

Certainly some carryover is necessary, but the minimum required balances have not been determined. So, combined with the fact that these balances have grown 53 percent, it’s quite likely that a good portion of the money could be used to avoid budget cuts.

Here’s another fact confirmed by the department that has been conveniently ignored or distorted: Schools are getting a lot more than $4,012 in base state aid per pupil. Total average aid to schools from state, federal and property-tax sources this year is $12,225, or just 3.43 percent less than last year.

There is also ample evidence that schools are spending more money than necessary. A July 2009 study by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit found that many districts are much less efficient than others and offered 80 recommendations to save money. The 2010 Commission ordered the study, phase two of which would have sent auditors into schools to help find ways to save money. But districts objected, so the 2010 Commission canceled phase two and now is calling for more state aid to schools, knowing that other options exist.

Our own study of K-12 expenditures found that per-pupil spending in 2007-08 ranged from $9,017 to $25,240. If high-spending districts had just been at the median cost per pupil of similar-sized districts, that would have saved $636 million. The complete analysis is available at the Web site

Dennis referred to another legislative report that found a correlation between increases in education spending and achievement scores, which he and others have used to justify their demands. They neglect to mention, however, that auditors did not say higher spending caused test scores to increase. (It’s a well-known research principle that correlation does not imply causation.) That same report also said the educational research “offers mixed opinions about whether increased spending for educational inputs is related to improved student performance.”

The truth is that these facts and others refute schools’ case for higher spending.

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