The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a school funding lawsuit. If the plaintiffs win, some experts think the high court could order the state to spend as much as $800 million more on public schools. The state already spends more than half its budget on education. And, according to Guest Commentator Walt Chappell, spending even more money won't make schools better.
Guest Commentator Walt Chappell is a former teacher and former member of the Kansas Board of Education. He lives in Wichita.
Production assistance for this commentary was provided by KPR news intern Courtney Bierman, a sophomore studying journalism at the University of Kansas.
The next time a candidate for the Kansas Legislature promises to “fully fund education,” ask them how much more they will raise your taxes to get the same poor results. The state already spends 51 percent of its entire budget on K-12 education. That’s a lot of our tax dollars. This means that there is little left for other essential government programs. And spending $800 million more on public schools would definitely increase our taxes.
Here are the facts. In 2005, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to increase money for public schools by more than $1 billion. Then, school districts used that money to hire more than 9,000 new employees to teach the same number of students. But, only 40 percent of the new hires were actually teachers. The rest were administrators and non-instructional staff. Meanwhile, administrative salaries have continued to increase while teacher salaries remained flat and student test scores have not improved in 18 years.
So, exactly, how much of our state budget is enough?
According to 2012 figures from the National Association of School Budget Officers, the Kansas legislature already gives our public schools 10 to 20 percent more to spend than Texas, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska or Oklahoma. Alabama spent the most at 55.1 percent of their state taxes on public schools, yet has some of the lowest test scores in the nation. On the other hand, Massachusetts spent 18.3 percent and consistently has America’s highest student achievement scores.
Clearly, the amount of money a state spends on public education has little to do with the level of their students’ academic achievement. In Kansas, some districts spend only $8,000 per student while other districts spend as high as $27,000 per student – to get the same results. The truth is that local, state and federal spending on Kansas public schools has doubled since 1998 – going from $3 billion to more than $6 billion per year – to teach the same number of students. In addition, since 2005, there has been a massive increase in school bond construction projects.
As taxpayers, over the next 20 to 30 years, we now owe a staggering $5.4 billion to pay for these new buildings and sports complexes. This means a major increase in local property taxes just to pay off these bonds. Yet national NAEP and ACT test scores continue to show that only 1-in-3 Kansas students is actually proficient enough to succeed in college or start a career. Sadly, student achievement has not improved since 1998 even after spending twice as much, going on a massive building spree and hiring 9,000 new school employees.
Something’s not working when it comes to preparing Kansas students to compete for jobs in the global economy, but it certainly isn’t due to a lack of money.
For too long, false and misleading information from the State Department of Education, Kansas Association of School Boards and their lobbyists have tried to convince the public and Supreme Court that K-12 schools are underfunded. This misleading information is then used by two attorneys who keep suing the Legislature to give schools even more money to spend.
But, clearly, our schools are NOT underfunded. Could the existing funds be distributed more equally across the state? Sure. There are also proposals to use $800 million per year more efficiently and verify that the taxes we already pay get spent in our classrooms. Plus school districts are sitting on a record $911 million in unspent cash reserves. And, the Kansas Legislature will try to come up with a new and better school finance formula in the 2017 session.
So, obviously, voting for legislative candidates who will raise our taxes by another $800 million to get the same poor results is not the answer to making sure that Kansas kids are prepared for college or career.