The WestEd school funding cost study commissioned earlier this year by the Kansas legislature has been cited by some education officials as saying school efficiency is very high, meaning there is little room to reduce costs in the state’s 286 school districts. But that’s a misinterpretation. Dr. Lori Taylor, lead author of the study, graciously took time to respond to several questions about the study’s reference to efficiency.
Educators cannot be correct in claiming there’s little room to reduce costs because the cost study authors didn’t have the information needed to make that determination. Dr. Taylor said, “We have no information about the extent to which Kansas districts are able to negotiate the lowest possible prices for the inputs they purchase.”
Further – and this admittedly gets a bit ‘in the weeds’ – the study’s mention of efficiency wasn’t comparing Kansas public schools’ spending to what is possible in other American public schools.
Question: “Is it fair to say that such measurement [WestEd’s description of efficiency] is merely relative to the performance of other observations and doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the observations are truly operating at a potential (or theoretical) level of efficiency?”
Dr. Taylor: “Yes, I think that is fair to say.”
Those ‘observations,’ according to Dr. Taylor, are of Kansas schools only and not in comparison to public schools in other states. With confirmation that their efficiency comment is ‘relative to the performance’ of other Kansas schools, the WestEd cost study is merely saying that Kansas schools are ‘efficient’ relative to each other and not whether they are truly efficient.
Here’s an example to explain ‘relative to each other.’ Suppose 286 elderly men had a close race around the block; they could be considered ‘fast’ relative to each other because they ran at a similar pace, but that doesn’t mean any of them are necessarily fast.
Cost studies as conducted by WestEd cannot measure the degree to which an entity is spending efficiently, let alone determine the minimum funding needed to meet any outcomes. As explained by Dr. Benjamin Scafidi in his academic review, researchers don’t have access to the minimum pricing inputs needed. As for whether school districts could operate more efficiently, every single efficiency study conducted by Legislative Post Audit (LPA) has found Kansas school districts could save money.
Other states have better output efficiency
The WestEd study said, “…buildings were producing nearly 96 percent of their potential output, on average,” and Dr. Taylor says the outputs were test scores and graduation rates.
WestEd didn’t compare Kansas schools to other states, but Dr. Scafidi’s report includes an eye-opening comparison to Florida. Here’s just one example from his report, looking at 4th grade Reading scores for low income students.
Between 1998 and 2015, Kansas had a 39 percent real (inflation-adjusted) per-student spending increase, but the reading score only improved by two points. At the same time, the national average for spending grew much slower (24 percent) but Reading scores improved by 14 points nationally. New York got the same 14-point improvement as the national average but had a whopping 45 percent spending jump.
Florida, on the other hand, had a tiny spending gain of just 4 percent, but their Reading score shot up 30 points! Florida also has much stronger gains for other students and subjects, even while spending much less per-student each year; in 2015 for example, Florida spent just $10,168 per-pupil while Kansas spent $12,753 as measured by the US Department of Education.
No matter the measurement, Kansas schools are not operating efficiently. The WestEd study authors didn’t have the information needed to determine whether Kansas public schools could purchase products and services at better prices; every LPA audit, however, shows there’s ample evidence that costs can be reduced without impacting quality. Dr. Scafidi’s report provides also refutes the notion that more money means more achievement.
And that’s oddly good news, because local school boards have multiple opportunities to make better spending decisions and put the savings into better instructional opportunities to improve outcomes.Lori Taylor email