As much as Mark Tallman makes fun of me for being an “economist” because I taught sophomore economics for a semester at Lawrence High School, I should be able to tell an old economist joke:
Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question: “What does two plus two equal?” The accountant says, “On average, four – give or take ten percent, but on average, four.”
Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question: “What does two plus two equal?” The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and says, “What do you want it to equal?”
It is totally unfair to diminish a profession based upon a silly joke. I am sure those students I taught back in 1980 would agree that economics is an honorable discipline. (At the very least as honorable as executive director.) However, when one of the folks doing the hiring of the economist who is to study the Kansas School Finance system makes the statement “We’re focused on finding experts who can help show the court that funding is adequate,” it doesn’t help the perception.
In the interest of fairness, we should give any study a fair hearing. But we should be listening with a critical ear. With that in mind, what can we expect from the upcoming study being conducted by Texas A & M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service Professor Lori Taylor? For school finance fans, the best clues will be from Dr. Taylor herself when she briefs the legislature on February 23 (Watch KASB publications for times, location and broadcast information.) Another opportunity will be on Saturday, February 24 at 10 a.m. at KASB offices, 1420 Arrowhead Road, Topeka. Legislative leadership has graciously arranged an opportunity for the education community to hear from Dr. Taylor at that time. We should thank Dr. Taylor and Legislative Leadership for this chance to meet and interact.
It will be important to learn about and understand some critical aspects of the study. The first concerns the assumptions being made in the formulation of funding models. Does the researcher assume that all districts are alike, or is the researcher making assumptions about variations in local districts that need to be accommodated? Functions such as school and district size, location, population density, demographics and cost-of-living are assumed to affect funds necessary for educating students in our current finance model. Will they be included in this new study?
Another set of assumptions has to do with individual students. Do different students have different learning needs? Do these needs translate to additional costs? Does the funding model allow for the differences associated with poverty, social and emotional needs or trauma? It will be important to understand how a study provides for students with additional needs.
Assumptions can also be made about how money can be spent. Does the researcher lump all funds together and assume that all money can be spent directly on classroom instruction? Some studies do not allow for the fact that funds like school lunch cannot be spent on an additional teacher. How will this study treat different funds?
While the aforementioned assumptions and issues are important, the most important aspect of any school finance study is the measurement of success. For over a decade, schools were measured by a reading score and a math score. The courts, legislature, executive branch and state board of education of Kansas have all acknowledged the need to move beyond this limited view of student success. The Rose Standards have been endorsed by all of the previously mentioned groups as what Kansas students need. Any study that ignores these as an outcome does not fit the expectations of success for Kansans. The Kansas State Board of Education’s Kansas Can vision defines what Kansans want for our children.
By changing assumptions and desired outcomes, the total dollars necessary to fund a system can be changed dramatically. It is essential the we learn about the principles behind the new study that is being conducted. Please take the time to get educated.
Watch KASB publications over the next few days to learn more about how you can engage in the process. Dr. Taylor will be addressing the legislature on February 23 and will be at the KASB offices on February 24. Educate yourself!