Kansas spends more money on education that any other item in the state budget, and education funding will likely be the dominant issue when lawmakers convene the legislative session in January.
A state court has already ordered lawmakers to spend more on education. And soon, the Kansas Supreme Court will issue its own ruling on a lawsuit that claims the state has been shortchanging public schools. All of this led lawmakers to spend two days last week studying up on school funding.
The Legislature's Special Committee on Education is headed by state Representative Kasha Kelley, an Arkansas City Republican. She says school funding will be on the minds of lawmakers even more than usual.
“I think it is the foremost issue this next year," said Kelley.
There’s a basic level of funding schools receive for each student under the Kansas formula, then there are additional adjustments for a variety of things, like the number of low-income students in each district.
Kansas spends less than the national average per student on education, but more than some neighboring states.
This week, lawmakers heard testimony about how schools spend the money they receive. Critics question how much is being spent on staff members who aren't teachers.
Dave Trabert of the Kansas Policy Institute, is one of those critics. He says lawmakers should be asking questions about staffing — did they have a positive effect on student outcomes?
“You know I hate that Staples commercial, there is no easy button," said Tranert. "We have to look at this data and really tear it apart and ask a lot of questions and not be defensive about it.”
While the numbers from the Kansas Policy Institute show there was an increase in staff over the last 20 years in schools, there has been a decrease in the last five years during the state’s lean budget times. There have been cuts in the numbers of superintendents, principals, librarians and clerical staff.
Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Grinnell Republican, says they have cut administrative staff where he lives, and in some cases, school superintendents are performing a number of jobs.
“Superintendent: he’s also bottle washer in the kitchen, he also is probably athletic director, three or four jobs,” said Ostmeyer.
Legislators also heard how Kansas is currently doing on national tests. Kansas is generally in the top 10, and does particularly well in educating low-income students. Mark Tallman with the Kansas Association of School Boards says with the number of low-income students in Kansas and the amount of money spent, you would expect lower scores.
“No states have been able to eliminate the achievement gap. But your system is helping Kansas outperform our population,” Tallman said.
There is some evidence of racial and economic disparities growing in the early 2013 test numbers being released. And the Kansas Policy Institute says just because the state may do well compared to other states doesn’t mean Kansas is doing well enough.
Some lawmakers questioned why the Kansas scores didn’t significantly improve after the state started spending more money on education after 2005. But Tallman says the states that do better than Kansas in the tests also spend more per student, and he says to increase results would take more investment.
“I think there is evidence to suggest that we’re doing very well, and the state said that," said Tallman. "But I think there’s also evidence to say that if you want to get even better, our association believes we are going to have to continue to invest more.”
But Rep. Kasha Kelley wonders if putting more money into the current system is the right answer.
“Just putting more money into –this is my personal opinion– a system that has been functioning largely the same way over a course of years doesn’t change the outcome,” she said.
The Kansas Supreme Court will hand down a decision either later this year or early next year in the school funding lawsuit. If they say funding should increase, that may mean lawmakers will consider revamping the funding formula next legislative session.