School finance formula effectiveness debated

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December 1, 2011 - 12:00 AM

HUMBOLDT — State Rep. Bill Otto and Kansas Policy Institute’s Dave Trabert agree the method Kansas uses to pay for education could be better. And that’s about as far as seeing eye to eye goes for the two men.
Otto and Trabert spent two hours poking holes in each other’s ideas about the state’s existing education finance formula — a policy Gov. Sam Brownback has plans to revise — and fielding audience questions during the Wednesday night forum.
In the high school auditorium Otto told about 20 community members and educators — Allen County’s three district superintendents did not attend — the existing formula works fine but could be tweaked for more equalization among wealthy and poor school districts.
Schools get funds through what is called the local option budget, which allows school districts to levy property taxes and spend more locally, beyond the state aid they receive. When district property values are low, they aren’t able to generate enough revenue to support an infrastructure to provide a quality education, the Le Roy Republican said.
“One mill in Burlington brings in about $400,000 and one mill in Galena brings in about $14,000,” said the fourth-term legislator. A mill, based on assessed valuation, equates to $11.50 in property tax for the owner of a $100,000 home.
If the state were to provide a bigger piece of the pie, Otto said, it would ensure schools like Galena and Marmaton Valley have equal access to resources.
Even with some inadequacies with education finance, Otto, a retired school teacher, said Kansas educators are performing as well as can be expected, citing U.S. student achievement ranks among states. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Kansas is ranked 14 and 7 in fourth grade reading and math respectively.
Trabert, president of the free-market, Wichita-based think tank, didn’t see it that way. Less, not more, money can adequately fund schools, he said. The key, he said, is to 
determine the money is well-spent.
“Let’s look at exactly what the facts are before we start talking about the policy things,” he said. “We have to have good information and know where we’re starting.”
U.S. state rankings are hallow statistics, Trabert said. Although Kansas ranked in the top tier in eight grade math and fourth grade reading, locally, only 59 percent of Iola fourth graders read grade-appropriate material with full comprehension. On average, 63 percent of Kansas fourth-graders read grade-appropriate material with full comprehension.
“Are these acceptable levels of proficiency,” he asked. “Proficiency matters, not rank.”
Robert Coleman, ANW Co-op’s director of Special Education, said KPI’s data suggests schools and teachers aren’t doing a good job, and that’s not reality.
“When you look at what schools have done across the state on state assessments, which are what schools have been instructed to teach, they’ve done fairly well. We’ve seen scores come up over the last few years,” he said. “Districts now identify an individual student on individual indicators … and are creating programs to help these kids and you start seeing that response as measured by the assessments that are given to us. Across the state we are seeing progress.”
Coleman admitted there are ways to increase school quality, but said the government needs to help steer the ship.
“It’s not that we can’t do better. We can and we should,” he said. “But there’s got to be some direction from the state as well. If we’re required to teach certain things as identified by the state and we do that, and we show improvement, to then claim that we are not doing the job does not seem appropriately fair.”
What improvement there is can’t come fast enough, especially when considering the amount of money spent on public education every year, Trabert said.
“We’re not saying schools are doing a bad job. What we’re saying is ‘is this acceptable?’” he said. “We might be making small gains, but how many more decades do we have to go to get to where all the kids are getting an effective education?”
Trabert said many educators and state officials believe that more monetary resources is the answer to achieving higher public school standards; but KPI’s top officer said the truth is in the numbers.
Citing Kansas State Department of Education data, Trabert said in the last six years, Kansans saw 29.5 percent more of their tax dollars go to public education. In 2011, $4.9 billion was spent on Kansas public schools, up from $3.8 billion in 2005.
“You can see … spending has gone up dramatically … while efficiency levels haven’t changed,” he said. “Frankly, I think this is good news because we don’t have billions of dollars more.”
Too often policy is viewed as black and white and when communities face struggles, Trabert said, citizens are given ultimatums.
“You can really have lower taxes and good quality services,” he said. “Not only can you have that, that’s the only way that any community is ever going to have sustained economic growth.”
Trabert will represent KPI at a similar forum in Baldwin Dec. 5.

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