Questions on classroom spending cloud Kansas schools debate
Topeka Republican Gov. Sam Brownback says he and many Kansas legislators won't be ready to consider big increases in aid to public schools until they are confident that enough of the money already spent on education is finding its way into the classroom.
But the lawmakers who expect to work on a new school funding law next year don't yet have a clear definition of what makes up classroom spending. Their uncertainty is likely to cloud discussions about how to distribute nearly $4.1 billion in annual aid to 286 school districts and how much to increase it.
Brownback said he and like-minded legislators would be willing to consider whether the state is spending enough on schools if more money were going directly to instruction.
"But right now, you've got this high percentage that's not getting to the classroom," Brownback said in a recent Associated Press interview.
Brownback's critics see such arguments as an attempt by Brownback and his allies to justify inadequate education funding.
"What is the classroom? What does that involve?" said Democratic state Rep. Ed Trimmer, of Winfield, a retired 33-year teacher. "Yes, I'd like to have had a raise or I'd like to have more money in materials and supplies, but I also didn't want the roof to leak on our computer equipment."
With Brownback's support, Republican legislators enacted a new school funding law earlier this year that junked a per-pupil formula for distributing aid and replaced it with predictable block grants. They argued that the old formula was too complicated and diverted dollars from classrooms.
Many superintendents dislike the new law, which doesn't call for an automatic increase in a district's aid if it gains more students or more of them live in poverty or have special needs. Four school districts have asked the Kansas Supreme Court to strike the law down. Even supporters see it as a stopgap policy because it expires in July 2017.
The court could rule early next year on whether the law prevents the state from fulfilling its duty under the state constitution to provide a suitable education for every child. The justices also could rule later in 2016 on whether Kansas spends enough money overall.
Educators frequently note that the state's basic aid per pupil under the old formula peaked at $4,400 during the 2007-08 school year, dropped during the Great Recession and was $3,852 before the new school funding law took effect earlier this year.
But even as that figure dropped, the state boosted spending on teacher pensions, aid for construction projects and other items, and total aid continues to set annual records.
Brownback said with public schools, "You have efficiencies that can be gained."
"This is about your back-office operation. This about how you purchase IT services or insurance or a series of things," he said. "No student would see any difference, but you would recognize more money available to put into the classroom to pay teachers more."
The State Department of Education said in 2014-15, districts spent 61 percent of their operating budgets on instruction. Some legislators and educators argue the definition of classroom spending should be broader, covering libraries, professional development for teachers and services for students, such as counseling.
"The assumption is that just spending more money, quote, 'in the classroom' gives you better results in the classroom," said Mark Tallman, a Kansas Association of School Boards lobbyist. "What matters is that you also have to spend enough."
But House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said student test scores suggest not enough existing dollars are being spent in classrooms. The Department of Education reported in September that a majority of the 260,000 students who took standardized English and math tests in the spring weren't on track to be ready academically for college.
"We spend a tremendous amount on K-through-12," Merrick said. "The test scores indicate to me that it's not in the classroom."