Conventional wisdom this year is that Kansas is struggling with a plan for school reform. The reality, however, is that the state is merely considering a change in how to pay for its schools.
No actual reform of what happens within the schools is contemplated, except that schools might have more flexibility in how to spend their funds. A recent plan to spend more on schools over the next two years doesn’t count as reform, as it merely allows schools to do more of the same.
As Kansas struggles to find funding for its public schools and other functions of government, we’re losing an opportunity to examine our schools and see if they’re performing as well as they should, both financially and academically. Here are some actual reform measures not being discussed on a widespread basis.
Across the country, charter schools and school choice programs are offering choice and improved educational outcomes to families. While Kansas has charter schools, the charter school law in Kansas is one of the weakest in the nation, and virtually guarantees that public schools won’t face much meaningful competition from charters.
School choice in the form of vouchers or tax credits doesn’t exist in Kansas. As a result, Kansas public schools face very little of the competitive forces that have been found to spur public schools to improvement across the country.
School choice programs save money, too. In 2007, the The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the study School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. According to the executive summary: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.”
Kansas is overlooking several reforms that would increase freedom and educational opportunity and would save money at the same time.
Accountability with teeth
Recently former Florida Governor Jeb Bush explained the accountability measures that have produced great success in Florida. Measures including grading individual schools from “A” to “F,” ending social promotion, and school choice programs, which help all schools: “Choice is the catalytic converter here, accelerating the benefits of other education reforms. Almost 300,000 students opt for one of these alternatives, and research from the Manhattan Institute, Cornell and Harvard shows that Florida’s public schools have improved in the face of competition provided by the many school-choice programs.”
Teacher quality policies
Recently Sandi Jacobs of National Council for Teacher Quality spoke in Wichita and addressed Kansas policies regarding teacher quality. Our policies rank below the average for all states. More information from Jacob’s presentation is at Kansas ranks low in policies on teacher quality.
The Kansas Policy Institute has found that Kansas schools are sitting on fund balances of over $700 million that could be used to make it through a tough budget year.
School spending advocates dispute this. But Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis agrees with KPI President Dave Trabert that these fund balances could be used — if the schools wanted to.
Chief school spending lobbyist Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) has argued that “many of the funds Trabert labels reserves are restricted or necessary to cover costs before government payments are received.”
That’s true. But this argument, just like a faulty op-ed written by Kansas school board member David Dennis, says nothing about whether the balances in these funds are too high, too low, or just right.
The evidence we do have tells us that the balances in these funds are more than needed, because they’ve been growing rapidly. The only way the fund balances can grow is if schools aren’t spending the money as fast as it’s going in the funds.
Focus on what works
Class size, merit pay, salary scales, unions, teacher experience and education, certification: all need to be examined to make sure that schools make decisions based on what works. We find, however, that school districts resist reforms. As a monopoly shielded from significant competition, Kansas public schools face little pressure to reform.
Consider class size, something that the education bureaucracy says is of utmost importance, and one of the primary reasons given for school bond issues. What the school spending lobby won’t realize is that class size is not important. Instead, the quality of teachers is much more important. Writes education researcher Eric Hanushek: “Much of the work that I have done has focused on teacher effectiveness. From this research I have concluded that teacher quality is the most important factor in determining how well a school will do. … Teacher quality is not captured by typically discussed characteristics of teachers such as master’s degrees, teaching experience, or even certification — things that states typically monitor. Requiring such things unrelated to student performance dilutes accountability and detracts from things that would make them more effective.”
Consider the harm of union work rules: When private sector companies are forced to layoff employees, they may use the opportunity to shed their lower-performing employees first. Government schools, governed by union contracts like the one in Wichita, can’t do this. They must dismiss the teachers with least seniority first. While this might seem like a good way to keep the best teachers, it turns out that experience is only a minor factor in teacher quality.
Are Kansas test scores a reliable and valid measure of student achievement? The test scores that school spending advocates use — tests administered by the state of Kansas — are almost certainly misleading. The basic problem is that scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show achievement by Kansas students largely unchanged in recent years. This is at the same time that scores on tests given by the Kansas education establishment show large improvements. We need to investigate so that we understand the source of this difference. The Kansas education bureaucracy resists such efforts.
The cost of a suitable education
The issue of what an education in Kansas should cost is again being examined by courts. This should provide an opportunity to examine the cost studies used by the court. The Kansas Policy Institute has published Kansas Primer on Education Funding: Volume II Analysis of Montoy vs. State of Kansas, which provides useful criticism and perspective of the cost studies used.
Besides ordering increased spending, courts should consider alternative remedies. These might take the form of increased opportunities for parents to escape failing public schools. An example is the parent trigger. This mechanism allows parents to force radical change on a school through the petition process.