••• Education, Research •••

LPA audit provides more evidence that student achievement cannot be bought

Legislative Post Audit (LPA) just released their latest research on public education funding entitled Estimating the Cost of K-12 Education. The audit is pursuant to legislation that requires LPA to conduct a study to determine the cost “to educate all students to meet performance outcome standards set by the Board of Education.” (p. 2) This effort is completely misguided because it incorrectly assumes that there is an identifiable, if only estimated, amount of funding/spending necessary to achieve that goal.

There are two underlying issues that question the value of the study:

  • If anything was learned during the No Child Left Behind years of two decades ago, it was what those of us involved in teaching – I spent 17 years teaching in Kansas elementary schools, including the entirety of No Child Left Behind – already knew: never will all students – yes, 100% – meet any adopted set of education standards. We clearly understood, as those who put NCLB into law should have recognized, student achievement is a function of many variables, some of which are outside the purview of public education.
  • Therefore, no amount of spending can ever reach an unattainable goal.

Also, the legislation presumes there is a relationship between spending and student achievement. There is research on both sides of this issue, as LPA identifies in the report. That notwithstanding, there is a mountain of evidence in Kansas that no such relationship exists. The title of an in-depth analysis of Kansas K-12 spending over the last two decades by Dr. Benjamin Scafidi tells it all: Public School Funding in Kansas Since 2003: Students left behind despite large, inflation-adjusted spending increases. Dr. Scafidi compares the large influxes of K-12 funding pursuant to the twin lawsuits of Montoy and Gannon to student achievement and concludes, correctly, that there is little to show in terms of student achievement for all that court-ordered funding.

Therefore, LPA’s conclusion reiterates what is already known: “general spending increases are unlikely to significantly improve student outcomes.” (p. 22) {emphasis added}

Despite state law sending LPA on this fool’s errand, their report includes language that taken out of context could be cited to buoy the education establishment’s never-ending insistence for more taxpayer dollars. After all, the educrats raison d’être is simply to maximize funding. Student success is an afterthought. Examples are already appearing. The headline in a recent Topeka Capital Journal article claims that “more money can help improve K-12 schools.” That is certainly not the general conclusion of the report and shouldn’t be considered a call for more money to K-12 education.

The wriggle room lies in the concept of “targeted” spending as a method that could improve student achievement, which is included in the audit. That refers to spending money focused specifically toward improving student achievement. What LPA fails to mention is that “targeted” spending already exists, except for one pesky reality: the money is not spent on those who are supposed to be targeted.

For three decades now, the Kansas at-risk program has spent billions toward the goal of  improving achievement of those at risk of academic failure. However, as two LPA audits and KPI research have shown, at-risk dollars have been spent on many other things than those students who are to be targeted. I’m disappointed that this LPA study didn’t even refer to their own research and findings.

LPA’s overarching conclusion supports what eyeballs have known for decades: simply spending more money on K-12 education will not improve student achievement. The only thing that will improve student achievement is to have hard consequences for not improving achievement, That, of course, means only one thing: tying money to performance.

Simply stated, more money will not improve student outcomes, but the threat of losing money might very well do just that. It would certainly get the attention of the education establishment if the Kansas Legislature gets on board with what several other states have, or are in the process of doing: expanding school choice by giving education dollars directly to the parents and allowing them to decide how to spend taxpayer dollars on education.