When it comes to education spending accountability “the times, they are a-changin”

David DorseyEducation

The Kansas Legislature appropriates half the entire general fund budget and over $4,000,000,000 total each year to support K-12 education. However, the Legislature doesn’t manage public education. That’s up to the State Board of Education and the Kansas State
Department of Education. The 286 Kansas school districts spend their state appropriation (along with another billion and a half local dollars) with virtually no accountability for student outcomes attached. But, as Bob Dylan wrote a long time ago, “the times, they are a-changin.’”

The Legislature is now tasked with creating a new K-12 finance law, due by a Supreme Court-ordered deadline of June 30, barely 100 days from this writing. And apparently our elected officials want some accountability included in the new law, because some in the Legislature are not happy with the student outcomes that those billions are buying. Unfortunately, others are seemingly unwilling to hold districts accountable to close achievement gaps and, in fact, recently equated accountability with “punishment.”

The Supreme Court has finally recognized the importance of accountability by taking an outcomes-based stance acknowledged in 2014 and reaffirmed this month by stating that the finance system is adequate when it is reasonably calculated to meet or exceed Rose standards.  KSDE has taken a ‘not-to-worry’ stance, siding with the no accountability group, and has stated such during a recent committee meeting. Accountability, they say, has no place in the new finance law because KSDE has initiated a new accreditation model for their schools, known as the Kansas Education Systems Accreditation (KESA). Would KESA satisfy outcomes-based accountability? In a word, no.

A deeper dive into the KESA approach explains why it lacks spending accountability:

  1. KESA is a five year process, with data analysis (presumably things like test scores) not in the process until the fifth year. Since the 2017-18 school year is the first year, under KESA, schools won’t even be looking at outcomes until the 2022-23 school year. KESA attends to process, not outcomes, accountability.
  2. KESA will not accredit individual schools, districts will now be accredited. According to Education Commissioner Randy Watson on this YouTube video, it’s better to accredit a district instead of an individual school because of “large systems being effective for change.” Does he seriously believe the bigger the government bureaucracy, the better chance for change? Regardless, a district-based accreditation approach will allow low-performing buildings to remain that way, sheltered under the district umbrella.
  3. The foundation for KESA is the State Board of Education’s Kansans Can visionary initiative. Districts (now referred to as “systems” pursuant to KESA) will be judged against the five pillars of Kansans Can:
    1. Kindergarten readiness
    2. Individual Plan of Study focused on career interest
    3. High school graduation rates
    4. Postsecondary completion/attendance
    5. Social/emotional growth (measured locally)

Here and here I described how each of these is a flawed measure of success and avoids addressing the fundamental and inconvenient truth that Kansas students don’t perform very well overall with entire subgroups of students who are chronically left behind. These are certainly not outcomes variables that would be employed when measuring accountability.

Here’s an excellent example of how to improve accountability: at-risk funding. Prior to the block grants, the state was funding about $400 million each year that was to be targeted to at-risk students. KPI revealed in this study  there was no accountability for at-risk outcomes. Schools simply filed an electronic summary of how they spent the money, without any requirements or consequences for not helping at-risk students approve. The new law must include an at-risk component, but must also require schools (not just districts) to not only account for how the money was spent, but report to the Legislature outcomes of the students who were served with at-risk dollars. Furthermore, the Legislature – not KSDE – must provide a narrow definition of an at-risk student to assure those dollars are not spread across the entire student body. Inherent in such an approach would be the granting of additional at-risk dollars for more successful schools and school choice options for students trapped in buildings that fail to close achievement gaps. That’s accountability.

The constitution stipulates that it’s the Legislature’s charge to fund education while it’s the State Board of Education’s responsibility to administer public education in Kansas. But given the fact that K-12 funding consumes half of the state’s general fund (not to mention the never-ending lawsuits demanding more and more), it’s perfectly reasonable, even warranted, that the education community be accountable for those taxpayer dollars. The days of school districts not being held accountable for outcomes are behind us. Even a more moderate, education establishment friendly Legislature and a complicit Supreme Court have recognized that spending money without a keen eye on what the state gets for that money is not only downright unacceptable, it’s unconstitutional.

you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

-Bob Dylan

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