A January report issued by the Topeka-based Flint Hills Center for Public Policy challenges prevailing wisdom about the adequacy of public school spending in Kansas.
“Good intentions are not enough, and simply increasing funding for schools year after year is not sufficient,” writes John LaPlante, an education policy fellow at the Flint Hills Center, in “Spending and Achievement in Kansas: A District-by-District Review.”
The report finds no connection between total per-pupil spending and eighth-grade reading assessment scores from each of the state’s 300 school districts between 1993-94 and 2004-05, even among districts with the same rates of student poverty.
“Some legislators had asked if we could do this for all the school systems in their districts,” LaPlante explained, after a state-level analysis of dollar inputs and test score outputs was conducted in 2006.
Both publications used official data from the Kansas Department of Education.
To produce the latest study, LaPlante rated schools’ performance by using a metric of per-pupil dollars spent compared to the percentage of students achieving proficiency. Lansing School District 469, in northeast Kansas, demonstrated the greatest efficiency at $75 per proficiency point, while Moscow 209, in the opposite corner of the state, rated the lowest at $250 per proficiency point.
State Rep. Ann Mah (D-Topeka) was unimpressed by the analysis.
“It keeps talking about doing things like a business, but no business would release a report like this,” Mah said.
In particular, Mah said using only eighth-grade reading scores to rate performance was inadequate. “You never make business decisions on just one measurement,” she noted.
LaPlante expressed confidence that other test scores, as well as dropout rates and college remediation rates, would show similar results.
“I’m not saying this is the only way of looking at education,” LaPlante said.
To limit “the sheer quantity of work,” LaPlante chose one measurement. He said reading represented the most fundamental educational skill, while eighth grade is the level at which students start to show differentiation.
Mah did not dismiss the need for a review of the state’s education system.
“You have to have some reasonable assurance that the money is being spent in the right way,” Mah said, adding the state had already done a better job of achieving the objective of the analysis released by Flint Hills. She cited an official audit presented to the education committee in January 2006, which examined many school expense variables.
Though the state audit compared expense variables with student achievement, as LaPlante did, analysts relied on National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores, which do not allow for a district-by-district breakdown of results.
For the past several years, Kansas has been embroiled in one of the most far-reaching legal disputes over school funding adequacy. A series of state supreme court decisions in Montoy v. State (2003 and 2005) compelled the legislature to increase funding for K-12 education by $466 million over a three-year period, even as student enrollment declined slightly.
In determining the state’s schools were under-funded, the court relied on a 2002 study that used a variety of methods to find funding inadequacy, including asking school administrators and professional educators how much funding they thought they might need.
Despite the court-imposed windfall, the state’s 2006 education audit recommended even greater funding increases.
“The question is: How are we going to allocate scarce resources?” LaPlante said. “It’s scary what these lawsuits are doing. We’re trying to isolate education from everything else and make it separate, and you can’t do that.”
Mah criticized LaPlante’s report for failing to set aside districts’ fixed costs when analyzing their use of dollars. She also said his declarations about the extent of education spending increases over the decade of study ignored inflation rates and other more expensive burdens on school districts, such as rising health care costs for personnel.
LaPlante said those criticisms don’t undermine the larger purpose of his analysis.
“I hope that looking at the total spending amount will drive people to look at the components of spending,” LaPlante said. “If someone can find a way to reduce spending on pensions or health care benefits while still providing an adequate benefits package to their employees, that’s great.”
LaPlante believes his study will add some balance and perspective to the debate.
“I think there’s a belief that we’re not spending enough money on schools,” LaPlante said. “Let’s just look at where we’ve come from so far.”
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.
For more information …
“Spending and Achievement in Kansas: A District-by-District Review,” by John LaPlante, published by the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy in January 2007, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #20765.