As Kansas struggles with its budget and decides what to do with public schools, advocates of public school spending exaggerate claims of pending job cuts and fail to take advantage of an opportunity to improve our state’s base of teachers.
Misinformation about school employment is plentiful. An article from the Hutchinson News (Budget cuts a way of life for Kansas school districts, December 26, 2010) is typical: “More than 1,000 teachers and 900 classified school employees have been cut out of the system.”
The Kansas State Department of Education surveyed school districts asking how many positions were reduced or eliminated due to lack of funding for the 2009-2010 school year. The answer was 1,160 teachers.
Actual employment figures from the KSDE indicate that for the 2008-2009 school year, Kansas schools employed 35,438 teachers. For 2009-2010 34,985 teachers were employed. That’s a drop of 453 teachers, or quite a bit less than half of the 1,160 teachers schools said they would have to cut.
Looking at total employment, schools claimed they would have to cut 3,704 jobs. The actual number of jobs lost was 562.
We see that the public schools, like many government agencies, exaggerate the effects of spending cuts — or even a slowdown in the rate of growth of spending. Whether this exaggeration is purposeful and dishonest is for others to decide. But this tendency is something to keep in mind as school districts across the state tell taxpayers and legislators what the effect of reduced school funding will be.
Cuts could be beneficial
While schools don’t like to see employment cuts, especially for teachers, cuts could be used to beneficial effect if not for the rules that most school districts have adopted. These union work rules require that teachers be laid off in order of seniority. Therefore, the teachers with the longest service will be the last to be let go.
It might seem like retaining the most experienced teachers is a beneficial policy. But research tells us that longevity in the classroom is not related to teacher effectiveness. One study found results that are typical: “There appear to be important gains in teaching quality in the first year of experience and smaller gains over the next few career years. However, there is little evidence that improvements continue after the first three years.”
Another result: “Thus we conclude that novice teachers in the sample are less effective than teachers in the sample with some experience, but beyond the first couple of years, more experienced teachers are no more effective than those with a couple of years of experience.”
So when school districts retain their most experienced teachers, they are making a decision to keep their most highly-paid teachers, using reasoning that has found not to hold up in the real world. This causes stress on school budgets for something that doesn’t improve student learning.
If Kansas schools would lay off their most ineffective teachers first, that would improve the overall quality of teachers in Kansas schools. But Kansas has weak policies in place to determine which teachers are effective.
Instead, Kansas schools will inform parents that class sizes will get larger. That might be true. But we now know it’s much better for a child to be in a large class with an effective teacher than to be in a small class with an ineffective teacher. But the policies of Kansas schools will not let this improvement in teacher quality take place.
Is it all about the kids?
Kansans ought to ask who the public schools serve. The schools, of course, say it’s all about the kids. But when the schools have work rules that protect the most expensive teachers when these teachers are not the most effective based solely on longevity, we see that the public schools are like most government programs: they exist to protect themselves, not their customers (students) and funders (taxpayers).