Brownback urges schools to move more money into classrooms
Wichita Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback urged school districts on Tuesday to move more money into the classroom and hold down the administrative costs of running their schools.
The Republican governor's comments came after he addressed educators at a training session in Wichita and lauded the Kansas Reading Roadmap initiative, a program that aims to improve reading levels in grades K-3.
Districts across the state are grappling with cuts under a new funding formula purported to give schools more choice in spending. Brownback signed a bill in April that dropped the state's old funding system and substituted it with block grants. Supporters said those would provide more stable funding for schools, but many school districts have reported their funding was cut and are anticipating further budget cuts.
Brownback said each school district has to deal with its own local budget.
"I think we really have to look at our back-office operations a lot more — what it is costing us to run the things associated with a school and doing that a lot more efficiently and holding our administrative costs down so we can get that money into the classroom where everybody wants it," Brownback said.
Kansas did that in the state government by consolidating things like technical support and human resource functions, he said.
"I want to see teacher salaries go up, I want to see us getting more reading proficiency — and we can do that, but it is going to require, I think, some push," the governor said.
Brownback said Kansas law requires districts to spend two-thirds of their funding in the classroom, but only a handful of districts actually meet that target.
However, the head of the state's largest teacher's union said later in a phone interview that teachers need "a whole school" — including support staff such a librarian, a school nurse, a counselor, a principal and custodians — to be successful in the classroom.
Some schools are pushing classroom sizes of 40 students because of inadequate block grant funding from the state, and some elementary classrooms are approaching 30 students, said Mark Farr, president of the Kansas National Education Association. He added that research shows that elementary classrooms need to be closer to 15-18 students to be successful.
"If the governor really wants to help our schools, he would fund our schools," Farr said.
With "very constrained budget dollars," local school districts have to make choices and all parts of a budget play a role in educating children, said Mark Tallman, associate executive director for advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
The KASB released a report in May showing the number of teachers and other classroom personnel has increased 16 percent in the past 17 years, while the number of central office administrators and clerical staff has gone down 16 percent. Student proficiency in reading and math has gone up, along with graduation rates.
"There is a lot of evidence to suggest the ways we are using our resources are highly effective and I don't think there is a lot to gain from shuffling money around," Tallman said.
Brownback got a friendlier reception when he spoke to educators at the session on the grade school reading program, which uses some money from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. TANF funds typically are used to provide cash assistance to impoverished families.
The governor praised the initiative's early successes in improving reading proficiency, calling it a way to help people's lives and reduce poverty in the long run through education.
"If a child can read at fourth-grade reading (level) when they are in the fourth grade, the likelihood of them being in poverty goes down substantially," Brownback said.