Analysis of new Kansas Policy Institute opinion poll

Analysis of new Kansas Policy Institute opinion poll

UPDATE: After this bog was posted on January 2, the Kansas Policy Institute informed KASB on January 3 that a statement would be issued regarding the first question in the opinion survey reported below. KPI indicated a portion of the question was based on a misunderstanding of current law regarding Local Option Budget authority.

The Kansas Policy Institute recently released a public opinion survey (PDF Version) asking a series of questions about school funding, local advocacy and litigation, school standards and support for charter schools and private school vouchers.  Responses indicate public support for many of KASB’s core positions on higher standards, suitable school funding and stronger local leadership.  However, in some key areas, those responding to the survey appear to disagree with some key KASB positions.

The following is a quick review of the poll results, with a particular focus on how responses compare to KASB policy positions adopted by member school boards, and other recent opinion surveys.  (See an in-depth review of three national opinion polls released earlier this year in the Tallman Education Report.)

The new poll was conducted by Survey USA December 18-19 for the Kansas Policy Institute. Two-thirds of the respondents were reached by home telephone and interviewed in the recorded voice of a professional announcer.  One-third were shown a questionnaire on smartphone, tablet or other electronic device.  Five hundred adults statewide were interviewed.

The results appear to be generally reflective of the Kansas population by age.  However, compared to party registration figures from the Kansas Secretary of State’s office for the 2012 election, the survey under-represented Republicans and over-represented Democrats and Independents.  This page provides a link to 2012 October Registration numbers.

The survey also appears to significantly over-represent persons with a four-year college degree, indicating 50% of the respondents had four years of college, compared to just 30% of the Kansas population 25 years and older.  (U.S. Census Bureau: American FactFinder.)

Response to School Finance Litigation

Question 1 asked: “A state court has effectively ordered legislators to increase school funding by $443 million, which would also automatically increase local property taxes by another $154 million.  Regardless of whether you believe schools are adequately funded, how would you respond to this statement: It is appropriate for the courts to have final say on decisions of how much taxpayer money is spent on education.”

KASB disagrees with the premise that the district court ruling would “automatically increase local property taxes by another $154 million.”  This is apparently based on raising the base budget per pupil from $3,838 to the statutory level of $4,492.  With LOB’s capped at 30% of base aid in all but 10 districts (which are capped at 31%), such a base increase would theoretically allow an increase of $154 million in LOB authority. (UPDATE: KPI has indicated the survey used an assumption of a $154 million LOB property tax increase based on this methodology. This assumption is incorrect, as explained below.)

However, districts are currently allowed to calculate their LOB using a hypothetical base of $4,433. This measure was approved by the Legislature to avoid LOB cuts when base state aid was reduced.  If the court orders the Legislature to fund the base at $4,492, districts would only receive an increase of $59 per weighted pupil for purposes of calculating the LOB.  Assuming a weighted enrollment of 786,000 (including special education aid), this would result in an increase of just $46.4 million on which the LOB can applied.  With an average LOB of 30%, this would provide about $14 million in new LOB authority.

However, the lower court also ordered full funding of LOB state aid, currently underfunded by over $100 million.  If additional LOB budget authority is provided, a portion should also be funded by state aid. Therefore, even if LOB authority increased $14 million, fully funding state aid would reduce property taxes by at least $86 million in the 81% of districts that receive LOB state aid.  Therefore, rather than “automatically” increasing property taxes by $154 million, the court order could lower property taxes by more than $86 million statewide.

Despite the inaccurate assumption of property tax increases, among all respondents, 47% either strongly or somewhat agreed that the courts should have the final say on decisions of how much taxpayer money should be spent on education, while 50% strongly or somewhat disagreed – within the 4.5% plus or minus margin or error.  A majority (55%) of those under age 50 agreed that the court should have the final say on the amount of education funding, while a higher majority (63%) of those 50 and older disagreed.  A majority of those with a four-year degree (51%) and those making over $80,000 per year (61%) also agreed.  Although the percentages were generally close between those who agreed and those who disagreed, higher percentages generally “strongly disagreed” than “strongly agreed.”

Question 2 asked: “And how would you respond to this statement: It is appropriate for the courts to have final say on decisions of the specific way in which taxpayer money is spent on education.”

Higher percentages of respondents opposed this statement than Question 1, with 36% strongly or somewhat in agreement, and 62% strongly or somewhat in disagreement.  Again, those with the most education and highest incomes were more likely to support the court’s role.

KASB believes the courts should be able to interpret article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, which requires the Legislature to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state,” and require corrective action if the Legislature is found to have failed in this duty, just as the courts may require school districts to spend money or take other action if they are found to be violating laws or contracts.  However, KASB has not supported either the courts or the Legislature directing specific educational expenditures.

Question 3 asked: “If the Kansas Supreme Court orders an increase in taxpayer funding to public schools, what would you most want to see the legislature do in response? Increase your property taxes?  Increase your sales taxes? Increase your income tax? Reallocate spending from other parts of government to get more money into classrooms? Try to find more efficient ways to spend the money already allocated to schools? Or something else?”

The respondents were not allowed to choose more than one option.  The top choice was reallocate spending from other parts of government (36%), followed by finding more efficient ways to spend money already allocated (31%).  Less than 30% supported raising taxes, 13% supported an increase in the state income tax, 10% an increase in sales tax, and 4% increasing property taxes.

This indicates that only about one-third of Kansans support “finding efficiencies” within the school system – which really means cutting some areas within the public school system to give to others.  For example, “efficiency” could translate into further district consolidation and losing your community’s control over local schools, closing more schools in your small town or neighborhood, cutting local jobs and contracts to outsource services.  These may sound like good ideas in the abstract, but look different when it actually happens in your community.  

On the other hand, a majority in the KPI poll support either increasing education aid by shifting funding from other areas of the state budget or raising taxes.  That suggests a majority of Kansans want to see school spending either increased or at least left at current levels.

It’s interesting to compare these results with the 2013 Kansas Speaks survey by the Docking Institute at Fort Hays State University.  It found that two-thirds of Kansans favor increased funding for K-12 education and another 27.5% want funding to remain the same.  It also found that 50% of Kansans favor increased spending on social services, and 45.1% favor increased spending on higher education.  Only 6.0% of Kansans favored decreased funding for K-12 education, 6.2% for social services and 12.7% for higher education.

At the same time, Kansas Speaks found that 44.5% of Kansans want OVERALL state spending to be REDUCED, while only 25.2% want state spending increased.  In other words, while 50% to 60% of Kansans want to spent more on K-12 and social services, only 25% want to increase total state spending.  To put it another way, Kansans want to spend more on specific programs, but not on overall government.  That may be why the new KPI survey found the strongest support for reallocating spending from other areas of government if the court orders increased funding for K-12 education.

However, the three areas of government spending that survey respondents told Kansas Speaks should be either increased or remain the same already account for 88% of the current state general fund budget (K-12 49.2%, higher ed 12.6% and social services 26.2%), according the Kansas Legislative Research Department’s 2013 Fiscal Facts report.  Most of the remaining funding in the state general fund goes to public safety and corrections.  For more information on the state budget picture, review the Kansas Health Policy Institute’s “Budget Puzzle.”

Lobbying and Lawsuits

The next two questions asked about the use of public funding for lobbying and school finance lawsuits.

Question 4 asked: “Should counties, cities, and school districts trying to lobby the legislature for a particular policy be allowed to use tax dollars to pay for their lobbying?”

Seventy percent of respondents answered “no,” with just 16% responding yes and 14% not sure.  Those with more education and higher incomes were more likely to favor allowing public funding for lobbying, but a strong majority opposed the issue in each case.

KASB believes school districts should be allowed to use public funding for “lobbying,” which we believe to be communication between one level of government (local elected schools) and another (elected state legislators).  The question is how survey respondents define “lobbying,” which may suggest gifts, entertainment and contributions that most local governments and their associations are not involved in.

Question 5 asked: “Should local school districts filing lawsuits seeking more tax money be allowed to use tax dollars to pay for their lawsuits?”

The results were very similar to question 4, with 71% opposed to school district financed lawsuits and 19% in favor.  However, when asked a similar question, the Kansas Speaks poll found that 61% of Kansans believe such lawsuits SHOULD be allowed, and only 39% opposed. (See link above.)

KASB believes school districts should be able to use public funds to challenge Legislative actions under the state constitution, just as the Legislature may use public funds to challenge federal laws under the U.S Constitution.  School boards are accountable to local voters for the use of tax funds.

Education Standards

Question 6 asked: “Do you favor or oppose the Common Core Educational Standards, referred to in Kansas as the College and Career Readiness Standards?”

Although Common Core standards have become very controversial both in Kansas and nationally with strong opposition from some conservative organizations and leaders, the KPI survey found that 38% of respondents strongly favored or favored the new standards, 34% neither favoring nor opposing and only 16% opposed or strongly opposed.  Another 12% had no opinion or were unsure.

These results are generally similar to national opinion polls released this summer, which found a higher percentage of the population with little awareness of the Common Core or no opinion; but among these with an opinion, support was higher than opposition. (See link to Tallman Education Report above.)

KASB strongly supports the implementation of higher standards for Kansas students, and believes the Common Core standards support that goal.

Question 7 asked: “Who should make academic standards and curriculum decisions for Kansas schools? Local school districts? The Kansas State Department of Education? National non-governmental organizations? Or, the federal government?”

The state department of education just edged out local school districts, 41% to 39%, which is within the margin of error.  Only 8% picked non-government organizations, and 5% the federal government.  Older respondents, Republicans and Independents were more likely to favor local school boards.  Interestingly, union members, those with only a high school diploma, those with a four year college degree, and those with the highest incomes were more likely to favor the state department of education.

KASB believes the question ignores the difference between standards and curriculum.  KASB supports the State Board of Education setting statewide academic standards, but believes local school boards should determine the curriculum taught in schools.  The difference is that standards are the goals or outcomes, while curriculum is the means to reach those goals and outcomes.

Question 8 asked: “Who should decide what qualifications are needed to teach in Kansas schools? Local school boards? Or the state legislature?”

Overall, 49% favored local school boards and 41% the Legislature.  Of all groups, only union members, those with four-year college degrees, and political liberals picked the Legislature.

However, the question does not address the fact that in Kansas, teacher licensure decisions are made by the State Board of Education, based on previous decisions of the Kansas Supreme Court regarding the powers of the state board.

KASB supports a state system of teacher licensing and supports the current constitutional powers of the State Board.  However, KASB also supports allowing local districts more flexibility in hiring individuals who may not have completed all traditional requirements but demonstrate competence through performance.

Direction of Kansas Public Education

Question 9 asked: “Thinking about student achievement in Kansas … are things in Kansas public schools generally headed in the right direction? Or are things off on the wrong track?”

Those responding were almost evenly split on this question, with 36% saying right direction, 38% saying wrong track, and more than one in four (26%) not sure.  Younger respondents – those most likely to have children in school – were more likely to see things positively.  Those under age 50 said right direction over wrong track, 40% to 29%, while 48% of those 50 and older said wrong track compared to 32% who said right direction.  Republicans were evenly split 42%-42%, while Democrats favored right direction 43% to 26% and Independents favored wrong track 45% to 26%.  Conservatives picked wrong track 53% to 28%, while moderates favored right direction (43%) over wrong track (28%) and liberals said right direction over wrong track 47% to 26%).

This question differs from most national opinion surveys because it asks about Kansas public schools generally.  Most surveys find that respondents – especially parents – grade their local public schools or schools their children attend fairly high (A’s or B’s), but grade public schools nationally much lower.  This survey did not differentiate between local or community schools and schools across Kansas.

The survey also did not ask WHY respondents believe schools are going in the right direction or off track.  For example, one could answer “wrong track” because of concerns about “failing” public schools, low standards, lack of discipline, etc.  However, one could also believe student achievement is on the wrong track because of state funding cuts, larger class sizes, and closing community schools.  Another concern is that an over-emphasis on testing basic reading and math skills has narrowed curriculum choices.

KASB data indicates that Kansas public schools have improved in virtually every consistent education measure over past decades, especially given the more challenging student population public schools now serve.  However, KASB believes Kansas must continue to increase the percentage of students who graduate high school and are prepared for college and career requirements.  Unfortunately, student achievement has leveled off in recent years – at the same time funding has also leveled off or declined in inflation-adjusted terms.

School Choice

Question 10 asked: “If you were deciding where to send a child to school, and cost was not a factor, what type of school would you choose to get the best education for that child? A traditional public school?  A traditional public magnet school? A public charter school? Or a private school?”

A majority of respondents picked some form of public school: 41% said traditional public school, 9% said traditional public magnet school, 5% said public charter school.  However 41% picked a private school.  That is about four times the rate of private school enrollment – in Kansas, approximately 10% of students historically have attended private schools (including home schools).  Younger respondents, Democrats, liberals, those with high school education only AND those with a four year degree were more likely to pick public schools.

Again, this question does not ask WHY respondents selected their response.  KASB research indicates that, based on state and local testing, private schools have similar results to public schools WHEN DIFFERENCES IN STUDENT DEMOGRAPHICS ARE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT.  However, respondents may favor private schools for other reasons, such as religious instruction, that public schools cannot address.

Question 11 stated: “Charter schools are public schools that have more control over their own budget, staff, and curriculum, and are exempt from many existing public school regulations.”

The survey indicated that 47% strongly favored or favored (presumably referring to charter schools), 28% neither favored nor opposed, 9% strongly opposed or opposed, and 7% offered no opinion or were not sure.

These responses in support of charter schools are similar to or actually lower than national views of charter schools reported in several surveys this fall.  National polls have long shown support for the “idea” of public charter schools, but there is considerable confusion over what exactly charter schools are.  That is probably because there is a wide range of charter school laws in states across the country, including Kansas.

KASB believes the crucial issue in charter schools is accountability to both state standards and local voters and parents.  The Kansas Constitution indicates that all public schools are under the “general supervision” of the State Board of Education and are to be “maintained, developed and operated” by local elected boards.  KASB supports giving local boards more freedom from state school regulations, in return for higher standards of accountability.  That includes allowing local communities to give public school more control over their budget, staff and curriculum.

Question 12 stated: “A school voucher system allows parents the option of sending their child to the school of their choice, whether that school is public or private, including both religious and non-religious schools. If this policy were adopted, tax dollars currently allocated to a school district would be allocated to parents in the form of a “school voucher” to pay partial or full tuition for their child’s school.”

The survey found that 40% of respondents strongly favored or favored, 23% neither favored or opposed, and 31% opposed or strongly opposed.  More Republicans were opposed or strongly opposed (40%) than Democrats (37%) or Independents (25%).

Question 13 asked: “Sticking with the idea of taxpayer money following individual students, would you support some version of a school voucher to be used for selected student populations such as special needs students, low income students, or students from chronically underperforming schools?”

This question suggests a policy that would offer vouchers only to a limited number of students.  Support for this question was higher than question 12, with 53% answering “yes” compared to 40% strongly favoring or favoring vouchers in question 12.  However, about the same percentage (30%) answered “no” to question 13 as opposed or strongly opposed vouchers in question 12 (31%).  Interestingly, Democrats were more likely to respond yes (57%) than Republicans (53%) or Independents (50%), and Liberals were more likely to answer yes (62%) than moderates (54%) or conservatives (51%).

These rates of support for public funding of private education options are generally higher than national results in polls released this summer.

KASB opposes public funding for private schools that do not have to meet state accountability and operating requirements for public schools or serve all students on an equal basis.  These questions do not address the issue of whether the parent could really choose a non-public school, or whether that choice would ultimately be made by the school through admissions policies or other requirements.  In addition, the Kansas Constitution specifically prohibits public education funds going to religious organizations.