Public radio ignores facts, pushes rhetoric on Kansas school funding

A Kansas radio news reporter seems not to care about reporting facts about Kansas school spending. Dave Trabert of Kansas Policy Institute reports.

Public radio ignores facts, pushes rhetoric on school funding

By Dave Trabert

The latest attempt to undermine Kansas tax reform comes from KCUR-FM and National Public Radio: “Huge income tax cuts have led to … shrinking classroom budgets for public schools.” That statement might make a captivating movie ad but the film would be classified as fiction.

The Kansas Department of Education says school funding last declined by 0.045% in the 2011 school year and has increased every year since. To put that tiny reduction in perspective, it’s the equivalent of cutting spending from $1,000.00 to $999.55. Income tax cuts hadn’t even been proposed at that point and didn’t go into effect for another eighteen months. Tax reform had nothing to do with the 2011 reduction in school funding, but why let facts get in the way of a popular tale.

The final numbers aren’t in yet, but funding for the 2015 school year just ended is estimated at about $6.1 billion and more than $13,000 per student. That would be the fourth consecutive record for total funding and the third consecutive record for per-student funding, using data from the Kansas Department of Education and the Kansas Division of the Budget.

Why do KCUR and NPR say school budgets are “slashed” and “shrinking” given this data? Because school officials say so. Seriously. No data was cited — just statements made by school officials.

The first story on KCUR-FM ran on July 2 and included this false statement: “The Legislature has cut classroom funding.” First of all, the Legislature does not set classroom funding and there is no official definition of ‘classroom funding;’ the amount that goes to Instruction (defined by the Department of Education) is determined by each local school board. On average, school districts spend about 55 cents of every education dollar on Instruction — and that ratio has remained about the same since 2005 even though total funding increased by nearly $2 billion.

Secondly, the Legislature increased funding. Administrators may not be getting as much funding as they want (in government parlance that is a “cut”) but KSDE data shows block grant funding increased last year by $142.2 million without counting KPERS and increased another $4.5 million this year. (The spreadsheets are no longer on the KSDE site but we have them for anyone interested.)

I shared this information with KCUR reporter Sam Zeff but the data apparently didn’t matter to him. He said KSDE Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis told the court that schools were getting less money and superintendents say they are getting less money, so that’s all the proof he needed. But school officials’ claims are based on getting less money than they want or feel they are entitled to receive … school officials are not saying that they are getting less money than they actually received in the previous year, but that is the message they want to send.

For example, USD 259 said the block grants cut their funding by $4.8 million last year but the district’s chief financial officer said spending was expected to increase by $87 million, or 14 percent. Only government could call that a “cut.” (See here for details.)

The reporter was even given an email from Dale Dennis (also documented in a KPI Blog post), confirming that school funding increased last year.

Mr. Zeff agreed to get together and look at the KSDE data but that meeting never occurred. Two days later, another version of the story ran on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” And just to make sure listeners got the message, there were four false references to school funding “shrinking” or being “slashed.” That story also falsely said the Kansas Legislature “…stripped teachers of tenure.” No such thing occurred. The Legislature merely said ‘due process’ procedures associated with efforts to remove a teacher would be determined by individual school districts rather than be mandated by state law. If any districts actually eliminated due process, it must be a well-kept secret; we can’t find any media stories citing elimination of due process and inquiries to various education organizations produced no results in that regard.

There was another breach of sound journalistic principles in both stories — no alternate views were included. Both stories dealt with opinions on the perceived ramifications of political actions but only one viewpoint was presented.

Reporters should be able to rely on school officials to make clear, factual statements but that still is no substitute for actual examination of hard data and the inclusion of multiple viewpoints in these plainly political stories.

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