Nearly a half-million Kansas students are enrolled in the public school system. Public schools now spend over seven billion taxpayer dollars each year. The estimate for the current year is that per-pupil spending will increase to over $16,000. Despite all the increases in spending – much of that court-ordered – overall student achievement remains unacceptably low. Furthermore, income-based achievement gaps are unacceptably high and not shrinking despite the billions of dollars spent to reduce those gaps. And with pandemic learning loss, achievement gaps are getting worse. Yet despite these apparent incongruities – higher spending and lower scores – the public school system continues to avoid any accountability.
What is school accountability? According to Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, at its fundamental, accountability is “the process of evaluating school performance on the basis of student performance measures.”
The Kansas education establishment, the standard bearers being the State Board of Education (SBOE) and the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE), goes out of their collective ways to avoid the system of being accountable by virtually ignoring these student performance measures:
- State assessments. State assessments in math and English Language Arts (ELA) are given each spring to 3rd-8th and 10th graders across the state. Scores have been declining since the current testing system has been employed since 2015. The results get little attention, and those results are presented in ways that even SBOE members do not understand.
- National Assessment of Education Process (NAEP). NAEP is administered by the federal government and is given to a representative sample of students every two years. NAEP is considered the “gold standard” by KSDE. Roughly just one in three students test proficient in math and reading, and not improving. Instead of the scores sounding the alarm bells at the state level, the SBOE is on record for bragging that NAEP considers Kansas standards (not actual results) as the highest in the nation.
- ACT. College entrance exam scores, in particular the ACT, are dropping. Only about one-fourth of Kansas students taking the ACT are considered college ready in English, math, reading and science.
On the contrary, the SBOE’s main initiative is Kansans Can, in which success is measured through inputs to the system, as opposed to actual student performance. To wit:
- The number of students enrolled in pre-school is NOT a measure of student performance.
- The number of students who have individual plans of study is NOT a measure of student performance.
- The level of social/emotional skills exhibited by students is NOT measurable of student performance.
- The number of students enrolled in post-secondary education is NOT a measurement of K-12 student performance.
- Although graduation rates are measurable, as those rates soar across the country, it is much more an indicator of attendance, as opposed to actual performance. Brookings Institute calls this an accountability-fueled mirage.
The one-two punch of downplaying actual student achievement while promoting non-achievement initiatives has made it virtually impossible for parents to get an objective, understandable look at school performance. Several states have created an A-F grading system for their public schools to provide more transparency. In the absence of a state-generated one in Kansas, KPI has translated state assessment scores into an A-F system. KPI would gladly end the project if the state published a fair version of a school grading approach.
All that said, school accountability is more than just reporting student performance. Of the $7 billion+ total education spending, only about half goes to instruction. A recent report from Legislative Post Audit (LPA) revealed that most at-risk funding, the nearly half-billion dollar state-funded program that is supposed to reduce achievement gaps, was actually spent on the teaching of all students. KPI has discovered that many school districts have blatantly disregarded a state law that requires districts to conduct a student achievement-based needs assessment and tie those findings into their budgeting process.
The bottom line to all this is that there is little or no accountability without consequences. It is human behavior, and in this case the human behavior in a government education bureaucracy, that there is no incentive to change absent consequences. Given that, the best way to improve accountability is to introduce real consequences for both malfeasance and misfeasance. And in the world of public education the consequence is money. Simply put, if you want to make public education more accountable, hit them in the pocketbook.
The most effective way to hit public schools in the pocketbook is to increase school choice opportunities for Kansas families. A choice system in which the money follows the student, such as ESAs available in several states – including a new court approved ESA in West Virginia – would force the education establishment to address a variety of issues, including accountability. Here’s evidence from West Virginia’s Paul Hardesty, president of the West Virginia Board of Education, who said in response, “It is time for the West Virginia Department of Education to focus on the basics – student achievement with a renewed focus on math, reading, writing and English language arts.” Kansas SBOE, are you listening?