A recent editorial by the largest newspaper in Kansas misinforms its readers.
“For too many years, the [Wichita public school] district was constrained by reduced state spending on public-school children. School systems across Kansas tightened belts to the point of being unable to breathe.” 1
So says a recent editorial in the Wichita Eagle, the largest newspaper in Kansas. What does the data tell us?
Data from the Kansas State Department of Education for the school year ending in 2017 (the most recent data available) show that state and local total spending, per pupil, adjusted for inflation, has been remarkably level since 2011. 2
The situation in each school district may vary, so the nearby chart shows data from the Wichita public school district comprehensive annual financial report along with my calculations. I took two data series (total revenue and the sum of state and local revenue) divided by FTE enrollment, and adjusted for inflation. I plot the sum of state and local revenue because in 2015 there was a change in the way some taxes were allocated, and using the sum of the two removes the effect of the change. 3
As can be seen in the chart, the trend for both series is generally rising, with a few dips along the way.
Is the Wichita Eagle editorial board aware of this data? We have to hope so. But that leaves the question as to why it claims the district is “constrained by reduced state spending.” Another excerpt from the editorial provides a clue: “State funding, amazingly, still isn’t to the levels of 10 years ago and reinforces the damage that the late 2000s recession and Brownback-era tax cuts of 2013 and 2014 had on public education. In 2008, base state funding for Wichita was $4,492 per student, or $327 more than this year. Multiplied by 50,000 students, that’s still a $16.4 million shortfall.”
The numbers that the Eagle cites are base state aid per pupil. This number does not accurately characterize school spending in Kansas. Base state aid is an inaccurate indicator of total spending on schools by the state. It’s deceptive, in that after adjusting for inflation, base state aid has declined. But at the same time, total state aid to school districts has increased.
For a newspaper to uncritically present base state aid as the only indicator of school spending is a big problem.
Base state aid, however, is not the only important number. To calculate the funding a school district receives, weightings are added. If students fall into certain categories, weightings for that category are added to determine a weighted enrollment. That is multiplied by base state aid to determine total state aid to the district. 6
While this may seem like a technical discussion that doesn’t make a difference, it’s very important, because some of the weightings are large. The at-risk weighting, intended to cover the additional costs of teaching students from low-income families, started at five percent in 1993. In other words, for every student in this category, a school district received an extra five percent of base state aid. The value of this weighting has risen by a factor of nine, reaching 45.6 percent starting with the 2008-2009 school year.
There’s also the high-density at-risk weighting. Starting with the 2006-2007 school year districts with a high concentration of at-risk students could receive an extra weighting of four percent or eight percent. Two years later the weightings were raised to six percent and ten percent. (This formula was revised again in 2012 in a way that may have slightly increased the weightings.)
The weightings have a large effect on school funding. For example: During the 2004-2005 school year, base state aid was $3,863 and the at-risk weighting was ten percent. An at-risk student, therefore, generated $4,249 in state funding. (Other weightings might also apply.)
Ten years later base state aid was $3,852 — almost exactly the same — and the at-risk weighting was up to 45.6 percent. This generates funding of $5,609. For a district that qualified for the maximum high-density at-risk weighting, an additional $404 in funding was generated. (These numbers are not adjusted for inflation.)
So even though base state aid remained (almost) unchanged, funding targeted at certain students rose, and by a large amount.
Over time, values for the various weightings grew until by 2014 they added 85 percent to base state aid. A nearby chart shows the growth of total state aid as compared to base state aid. (Starting in fiscal 2015 the state changed the way local tax dollars are counted. That accounts for the large rise for the last year of data in the chart. For school years 2016 and 2017, block grants replaced the funding formula, so base aid and weightings do not apply in the same way.)
So yes, the Eagle editorial board is correct that base state aid per pupil is down. But total spending by the state is up.
Opinions may vary on spending more or less on schools. But our state’s largest newspaper isn’t giving its readers the information they need to form an informed opinion.
- Wichita Eagle Editorial Board. *A well-funded Wichita school district. A sight this city’s children deserve.” August 10, 2018. Available at https://www.kansas.com/opinion/editorials/article216418710.html. ↩
- Weeks, Bob. Kansas school spending. Available at https://bobw7.sg-host.com/wichita-kansas-schools/kansas-school-spending-2017/. ↩
- Weeks, Bob. Wichita school revenue. Available at https://bobw7.sg-host.com/wichita-kansas-schools/wichita-school-revenue-2017/. ↩
- Weeks, Bob. Kansas school weightings and effects on state aid. In making the case for more Kansas school spending, the focus on base state aid per pupil leaves out important considerations. https://bobw7.sg-host.com/wichita-kansas-schools/kansas-school-weightings-and-effects-on-state-aid/. ↩
- For the fiscal 2016 and 2017 school years, the formula was replaced by block grants. ↩
- Amendments to the 1992 School District Finance and Quality Performance Act and the 1992 School District Capital Improvements State Aid Program (Finance Formula Components), Kansas Legislative Research Department, May 20, 2014