On Monday and Tuesday, the Kansas House Appropriations Committee held hearings, and big topics were Kansas school funding and the Kansas budget. The reaction by school spending advocates to two speakers is illustrative of the highly divisive nature of public school operation and funding in Kansas.
We need to label them school spending advocates — and government schools at that — because it is increasingly apparent that increasing school spending (or avoiding necessary reductions in spending) at the expense of all reason is their goal. Suggestions that schools should operate more efficiently or learn to live with a little less — as many Kansas families and businesses are doing — will result in attacks on the messenger, sometimes unnecessarily personal in nature.
Monday’s education-related testimony started with Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell, followed by former Kansas Education Commissioner Bob Corkins. My reporting of their testimony is at At House Appropriations, Chappell presents Kansas school funding ideas and Corkins testifies on school finance history, recommendations.
An example of the criticism made by government school spending advocates is that of Kathy Cook of Kansas Families for Education. In her newsletter she spoke of “Black Monday in Topeka,” writing “From House Appropriations to the Governor’s press briefing, it was nothing but bad news for our schools and our students. It was the longest drive home, and not without tears for all that is about to be lost for our kids.”
She made personal attacks on both Chappell and Corkins without making substantive criticism about their testimony.
At the Kansas National Education Association (or KNEA, the teachers union), the “Under the Dome Today” newsletter carried a heading reading “Walt Chappell, Bob Corkins attack public education.” I heard no such attack from either speaker. They suggested ways that schools could operate differently to save money (Chappell) and to organize their reporting and accounting to better track spending and results (Corkins).
To the Kansas education establishment, evidently, these suggestions represent unwanted meddling in school affairs.
Reacting to the testimony of Chappell and Corkins, one leftist Kansas blog took the committee and its chairman to task for holding “a hearing that was lopsided even by Adolf Eichmann’s standards.” I was there for the entire afternoon, and after these two spoke, I heard three school district superintendents plea for more funds. Then, topping off the day was chief school spending and taxing advocate Mark Tallman, the lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB). There was, believe me, much pleading for more school funding.
Some of the testimony was difficult to listen to. Fred Kaufman, superintendent of the Hays school system, said twice that there is no advocacy group for school administrators. I wonder if he has heard of United School Administrators of Kansas. This organization’s website describes itself as “a statewide ‘umbrella’ organization comprised of members of ten school administrator associations. We represent more than 2,000 individual administrators statewide.”
The backdrop of all this is that the actual decrease in Kansas school funding, when considering all sources of funding, is quite small. As of August — before the governor’s cuts on Monday — estimated Kansas school spending per pupil for the 2009 to 2010 school year, when considering all sources of school revenue, fell by only 0.64%. That’s quite a bit less than one percent. It’s a rounding error, a fluctuation that could also have been caused by events such as, say, a cold winter causing higher utility bills. It’s an event that should have no affect on the ability of the schools to educate children.
The reductions the governor made on Monday will increase the cut that schools will have to absorb. When considering this, it’s important to remember that schools fared much better than many state agencies this year. Schools still have a tremendous amount of money to work with, a fact that schools work hard to hide.
Strong evidence that schools have plenty of money is that fund balances have been increasing. The way that these funds — and we’re talking about nearly $700 million in operating funds, not capital funds — increase their balances is by more money going in than is spent.
The uncovering of the existence of these balances is strongly attacked by school spending advocates. Despite many school administrator’s claims, sunlight and transparency is not their goal.