It’s all about the money

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President Reagan famously joked that “the most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  To be sure, there are some very good people with honest intentions in government, including public education.  But too often, variations of ‘it’s all about the kids’ really means ‘it’s all about the money.’

The latest example comes from Rod Stewart, President of Kansas Association of School Boards.  His January 2 op/ed says, “The recent school finance decision by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County will no doubt increase debate over money, taxes and formulas. The underlying focus, however, of the decision should be on our Kansas students and the long term future of our state.”  That sounds noble, but he ignores basic facts and distorts others in an effort to justify entitlement to more taxpayer money.

Stewart offered several opinions for the recent lower court ruling, which, in our opinion, ignored facts and defied the State Supreme Court in declaring that funding must increase by at least $548 million.  He first said, “…the court noted that after several years of improvement on state reading and math tests, scores began to drop as the impact of funding cuts were felt.”  The district court did say that, but they did so absent any supporting fact connecting the two.  In legislative testimony, the Kansas Department of Education said they didn’t know exactly why scores dipped in 2013 (results for 2014 were not released) but they believed it was related to the transition to Common Core; teaching was aligned to Common Core standards but the state assessment was still aligned to the old methods.
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The district court was also wrong in claiming that test scores declined “…as the impact of funding cuts were felt.”  Test scores did not decline until 2013.  School funding (all sources of funding per the State Supreme Court) slightly declined in 2010 and 2011 but test scores continued to increase.  Funding has increased every year since.

Stewart next attributed the court ruling to there being “…significant performance gaps among Kansas students. Low income students, who are also disproportionately represented among minority groups, lag behind their more advantaged peers on tests of basic skills, graduation and college preparation. This alone is evidence the state is not providing ‘suitable’ funding for all students.”

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The existence of achievement gaps is not evidence of inadequate funding and Mr. Stewart’s disingenuous claim is easily disproven.  School districts and their lawyers claim that funding became inadequate when Base State Aid was reduced in 2010, but performance gaps existed during the years that districts believe funding was adequate, as shown on the adjacent chart of Math scores.  Indeed, performance gaps have always existed.

The Legislature’s funding of At Risk further disproves this claim.  At Risk funding increased from $27 million in 1998 to $385 million in 2013, but the proficiency level of low income students (as determined by eligibility for Free/Reduced lunch) on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) remains at 22%.  By the way, KSDE says measurement of NAEP performance since 2003 is valid and reliable.  State assessment scores improved a bit but not even close to the seven-fold increase in At Risk funding that occurred over the same period.  (State performance standards were altered in 2006 to the extent that comparison to prior years is invalid according to the guidance report accompanying those standards.)

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Stewart’s third rationalization for a funding increase is baseless and irrelevant:  “…demands for educational attainment are growing as fast – or faster – than actual achievement.”  Yes, there is higher demand for people to obtain post-secondary education (technical college, bachelor’s degrees, etc.) but that has nothing to do with spending on K-12 education.  And to underscore how KASB’s justifications dance to the tune of the occasion, let’s reflect on 2013 legislative testimony presented by KASB’s Tom Krebs.  He said the fact that only 30% of Kansas high school senior scored well enough on the ACT exam to be considered college-ready on English, Reading, Math and Science was proof that schools were doing a good job – because only about 30% of today’s jobs require a college degree!

Stewart also trotted out this false claim: “States with the highest educational attainment spend more per pupil than low achieving states.”  There are some people who believe that to be true, but even Legislative Post Audit admits that “Educational research offers mixed opinions about whether increased spending for educational inputs is related to improved student performance” (see page 107).  KPI also conducted research that disproves the theory in “Removing Barriers to Better Public Education,” published in 2012.

The following tables update that research with the most recent spending and achievement levels, using 2012 Current Spending Per Pupil (no capital or debt) from the U.S. Census Bureau and 2013 NAEP scores.  The NAEP scale score reflects the combined scores for 4th Grade and 8th Grade Reading and Math.  We compare individual student cohorts (White, Hispanic, Low Income, etc.) because comparisons of state averages are invalid, as there are achievement gaps among the cohorts and also large differences in demographic makeups of each state.  State average score comparisons would only be valid if the demographics were the same for each state.  KASB is well aware of this fact.

Looking first at the comparison of White students, we see that there are some high spenders in the top 25 but New Jersey spends more than twice the amount of Colorado and achieves nearly the same result.  Texas, North Carolina and Florida all spend much less than most states but are all ranked in the top 15.   The complete list can be seen here, which shows that high-spending states such as Alaska, Wyoming, Maine, Louisiana and West Virginia are in the bottom half of the rankings.  Further, the highest spend across 50 states is 215% greater than the lowest spend, but the highest score is only 11% greater than the lowest score.

We find similar results in our comparison of Low Income students.  Indiana spends 39% less than Vermont but gets virtually the same result; Maine spends 25% more than Indiana and gets the exact same result.  Idaho spends $6,659 per pupil and gets 99.7% of New Jersey’s result, even though New Jersey spends $$17,266 per pupil.  The highest spend across 50 states is 215% greater than the lowest spend, but the highest score for Low Income is only 7% greater than the lowest score.

Comparisons of scores for African American, Hispanic, Disabled and other student cohorts produce similar findings.  It is simply not true that spending more money leads to better outcomes.

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 His final attempt to justify taking more money from citizens is another debunked claim that embodies the entitlement mentality:  “Total K-12 school funding is projected to be just 4.42 percent of total personal income in 2015 – the lowest level since 1985.”

The ‘percentage of personal income’ argument has nothing to do with what schools need to meet the Rose standards, and you can bet your bottom dollar that schools would argue that funding should not decline if personal income declined.  Oh, wait, they already did that during the Great Recession; it was even part of the claim in their 2010 law suit.  No, this is just about entitlement.

Relevance aside, let’s examine the facts of personal income.   Mr. Stewart references a KASB report that estimates school expenditures between 1975 and 1989 and actual expenditures thereafter.  However, KASB acknowledges that actual expenditures are not available prior to 1990, so let’s stick with the known facts.

KASBblogtotalpersincomeWe ran the numbers from 1990 forward and found that taxpayer support of public education has grown faster than personal income.  Taxpayer support of public education increased 182.7% between 1990 and 2013, going from $2.070 billion (adjusted upward to include KPERS between 1990 and 2004, which wasn’t included in total support until 2005) to $5.852 billion, according to KSDE spending reports.  Personal income, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, increased 181.5%.

KASBblogPItopaytaxesThe real gap, however, is a bit wider.  Personal income includes money that is never available to pay taxes, such as the money employers spend on your health care insurance and retirement.  Personal Current Transfer Receipts are also included in the calculation of Personal Income.  PCTR includes “…income payments to persons for which no current services are performed and net insurance settlements. It is the sum of government social benefits and net current transfer receipts from business.” Current transfer receipts of individuals from businesses “…consist primarily of personal-injury liability payments to individuals other than employees.”  Personal income available to pay taxes (wages and salaries, proprietors’ income, dividends, interest and rent less employee / self-employed contributions to social security) increased 171.4%.

Again, the personal income story is just an irrelevant attempt to justify more money, but an honest examination of the facts even disproves their contention that school spending hasn’t kept up.

There are many dedicated educators who put student needs above all else but for the special interests and others, it’s really all about the money.

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