Why are some measures of student success in Kansas, such as state and national assessment results, flat or even declining, with many groups of students performing much lower than their peers?
For most school leaders – at least those active in KASB – the most common answers are, first, eight years of school funding falling behind inflation; and second, growing numbers of harder-to-educate children due to poverty, social and emotional issues, childhood trauma and other factors the school system must address even before teaching begins.
But some legislators say a big part of the problem is that school boards and administrators have failed to use money correctly. They say that despite big increases in funding, Kansas hasn’t seen corresponding increases in performance.
It is worth nothing that Kansas schools DID see a big increase in funding in the late 2000’s after the Montoy school finance case – and state assessment, national tests and ACT scores all INCREASED into the first half of the 2010’s. After funding fell behind inflation from 2009 to 2017, all of those measures reversed. This year, Kansas schools are in the third year of a six-plan approved by the Kansas Supreme Court to restore funding to inflation-adjusted 2009 levels.
Despite these trends, some Legislators remain concerned. Two responses have been proposed. One is to look at tighter restrictions on how districts use at-risk funds, such as HB 2540 in the House K-12 Education Budget Committee. The second, introduced as SB 353 in the Senate Education Committee, suggests that school boards have been spending too little on “instruction” and, by implication, too much on other things. Let’s focus on that issue.
As introduced, SB 353 doesn’t directly require school boards to do anything differently. The bill would change current law to direct that school boards should use data from building-based needs assessments to work “to ensure improvement in student academic performance,” and seek to “allocate sufficient moneys in a manner reasonably calculated such that all students may achieve the goal” set forth in state statute law, the so-called “Rose capacities.” Those capacities were identified by the Kansas Supreme Court as the measure an adequately funded school system.
As listed in state law, the seven Rose capacities are:
(1) Sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization.
(2) Sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable the student to make informed choices.
(3) Sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation.
(4) Sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness.
(5) Sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage.
(6) Sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently.
(7) Sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.
Most school board members and districts are probably thinking: “Well, of course. This is exactly what we try to do.” In fact, KASB members specifically adopted a statement supporting improvement based on those standards:
“KASB supports an accreditation and accountability system based on meeting or exceeding the Rose capacities as identified by the Kansas Supreme Court.”
Although the bill, as introduced, basically just directs local school leaders to focus resources on improving student success, the bill’s only proponent, former House Speaker Mike O’Neal, representing the Kansas Policy Institute, argued the bill is needed because school districts are NOT effectively directly using school funding. As evidence, the testimony suggested student achievement is too low, schools have not used enough new funding on instruction, and school districts fall short of the “policy goal” in state law to spend 65 percent of funds on instruction or “in the classroom.”
The following facts were shared with the committee regarding how schools allocate funding to instruction and other functions, the impact of those funds on educational measures, and how Kansas compares to other states.
School expenditures are spread over multiple functions, each of which contributions to student learning.
Approximately three-quarters of total school district spending goes to directly to teaching and services for students. Approximately 22 percent goes to build, equip, operate and maintain the physical plant of the districts. Less than five percent is general or central administration.
However, there are big differences among districts in their individual percentages because of local circumstances that often limit what school boards can do. For example, everything districts spend on debt service for school facilities and a significant part of what they spend on construction, equipment and major repairs and remodeling cannot be spent on anything else. If district voters pass a bond issue, the percent of spending on instruction will go down because the percent going to service those bonds will go up. But that doesn’t mean the district is spending less money on instruction, and it could not spend bond money on instruction or anything else.
There is no relationship between the percent of budget districts spend on instruction and academic performance as measured by state assessments.
The chart above divides districts into 10 groups of roughly 29 ranked by percent of total expenditures on instruction, and average state assessment results. Note the group spending the highest share on instruction have just two percent more students scoring at “grade level” – and one percent fewer students at “college ready” – than districts with the lowest share. The group that does best is basically at the state average.
There is also little relationship between percent of total spending on instruction at the state level and national reading and math scores.
As the following chart shows, states in the top half of spending the percent of total dollars on instruction are slightly more likely to have higher scores that’s with the bottom half – but states near the middle do the best.
Although spending more on instruction alone doesn’t guarantee better results, Kansas school leaders have spent far more increased funding on instructional than anything else.
By far the largest increase in total Kansas school district spending since 1999 has been for instruction. The second largest increase has been in debt service for bond issues approved local voters, revenues that can only be used for that purpose.
Excluding debt service, instructional spending rose from 55 percent of total expenditures in 2000 to 58 percent in 2019, which would have been higher if the Legislature had not reduced KPERS payments by $115 million – payments that will increase by $250 million this year.
Debt service and KPERS payments are just two examples of how much of school budgets cannot be shifted by local school board even if they wished.
Kansas ranks high in the percentage of total funding and current expenditures going to instruction.
As the following table shows, while Kansas ranked 30th in the nation in total revenues per pupil in 2017 (the most recent year data in available), Kansas ranked 15th in the nation in the percent of TOTAL expenditures going to instruction and 12th in the nation in the percent of CURRENT expenditures going to instruction. That’s an important distinction because school boards have more authority to allocate current dollars – debt service and capital costs cannot be spent on instruction (by definition).
Using 15 educational outcomes, KASB ranks states on student performance. On the most recent calculation, only eight states ranked higher than Kansas. We call those Aspiration states.
On average, those states spent over $4,000 more pupil than Kansas in total and more than $2,000 on instruction. But Kansas’ percentage of total spending on instruction was just 0.4 percent less than the top performing states and 0.1 percent more of current expenditures.
By the way, since Kansas is often compared to Florida for educational policy, Kansas was just one percent lower than Florida on total expenditures going to instruction and just 0.1 percent lower on current expenditures.
It should also be noted that NO state is spending 65 percent of total revenues on instruction.
Kansas ranks high among states on the Rose capacities for young adult educational attainment.
Finally, when evaluating how well Kansas school districts are allocating their resources, there are several measures of education attainment that really reflect the Rose capacities of “(6) Sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently,” and “(7) Sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.”
The final three tables show that while Kansas spends well below the U.S. average per pupil (ranking 30th), on each key indicator of educational attainment by young adults (ages 18-24), Kansas ranks above the U.S. average in high school completion, any postsecondary education and bachelor’s degree completion.