Friday, July 20, 2018

State aid for school district bond projects: how it works, why it matters

Most people are aware that the state of Kansas provides help for some school districts to pay for construction bonds to build, remodel and equip schools and other district facilities. But they may not know the details of how the program works, or why it is important.

Decades ago, before the state began assuming a larger role in school funding, schools were mostly funded through local property taxes. There are great differences among districts in the amount of taxable local wealth (called assessed valuation), especially when considering differences in the number of students each district enrolls and educates.

Assessed valuation per pupil ranges from just over $1,000 in Ft. Leavenworth, a military installation with almost no taxable property, to over $500,000 in Burlington, home of the state’s only nuclear power plant. Even after throwing out those extremes, valuation per pupil ranges from about $25,000 to over $375,000.

This means lower wealth districts would require much higher property taxes to raise the same amount as wealthier districts. For example, according to the Kansas State Department of Education, the average school district bond payment last year was $1,202 per pupil. This is an average: many districts have no debt and no payments; others are higher.

Again, excluding extremes, a district with $25,000 in assessed valuation per pupil (AVPP) would have to levy over 46 mills to raise $1,202 per pupil, compared to just over 3 mills for a district with $350,000 AVPP. The statewide average would be about 16 mills. Beginning in 1993, even before the Kansas Supreme Court ruled such differences would create unconstitutional inequities for students, the Kansas Legislature created a program to help lower-wealth districts pay for school construction bonds.

The original formula was amended by the Legislature in 2015. Under the new formula, the LOWEST district in assessed valuation per pupil would receive 75 percent state aid, meaning the state would pay for 75 percent of the annual bond payment. The "aid ratio" drops by one percent for every $1,000 in increase in AVPP.

The next lowest AVPP district for last year, 2017-18, was $25,800. The difference between $25,800 and the lowest AVPP of $1,000 is approximately $25,000. Subtracting 25 percent (1 percent for each $1,000) from 75 percent, means the second lowest current district is eligible for about 50 percent state aid.

Without state aid, a district with AVPP of $25,000 would need to levy about 47 mills to raise the state average per pupil annual bond payment of $1,202. With 50 percent state, the required mill levy drops to about 23 mills.

The aid percentage continue to drop until AVPP reaches about $76,000. In other words, the rate drops from 75 percent at $1,000 per pupil to zero at $76,000 per pupil. There are about 140 districts below $76,000 in AVPP, out of 286, which means that approximately half of districts receive NO state aid, and half receive aid between 50 percent and zero. There are only about 20 districts below $40,000 AVPP, which means most districts that get state aid receive less than 35 percent.

It is important to remember that while lower wealth districts receive an increasing percentage of aid, it does not mean their taxpayers pay less in taxes. In fact, even with state aid, these districts still require a higher mill levy than wealthier districts.

The chart below shows the approximate mill levy required to raise the average bond and interest payment of $1,202 per pupil without any state aid (blue bars), and the levy required with the current state aid formula (orange bars). No aid is paid for districts over about $76,000 per pupil and as AVPP continues to rise, the mill levy continues to decrease.

As the table shows, this program is far from “fully equalized.” Wealthier districts can still raise more revenue per mill, or equal revenue at a lower tax rate; and the poorest districts still must pay more than to raise the same amount. However, it does allow those lower wealth per pupil districts to pay for school construction with tax rates closer to the state average.

Information about specific districts can be accessed through the Kansas State Department’s Data Central portal, here. You can select reports on assessed valuation, bonded indebtedness and bond proceeds.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

School districts increase staff to help students, improve outcomes

Since 1998, the number of school district employees in Kansas has increased by over 9,500 full time equivalent positions, or about 16 percent. Student enrollment increased by over 22,000, or about five percent.

Schools have added staff at a faster rate than students for three basic reasons:

  • Reducing general class size, which helps improve student learning.
  • Providing more intensive instruction for students with special needs, most significantly due to new requirements and more identification of special education students, but also for additional services to other at-risk students. The number of special needs students has grown much faster than regular enrollment.
  • Additional expectations for schools such as technology, school safety and social services; and expanding transportation and nutrition programs.

There is strong evidence these investments have paid off:

  • A higher percentage of students are graduating high school, the highest on record.
  • More students are prepared for college based on ACT tests.
  • More students are entering and completing postsecondary education than ever before.
  • These changes have occurred despite a large increase in students who have traditionally been less likely to graduate, to prepare for and to complete postsecondary education (low income, disabled and minority students).
  • Data shows that the most successful states in student outcomes have more staff employed for their student populations than less successful states.

School employment has changed as follows:

  • The biggest increase in school staff was for instruction, especially in early childhood and special education.
  • Schools added more support for student social and emotional needs and school safety.
  • Districts boosted support for improving curriculum, instruction and technology.
  • Principals have been reduced while other school staff increased.
  • Districts reduced maintenance staff and added to transportation.
  • Districts reduced general administration and central services support staff.

How have school employment positions changed by type of function?

From school district reports, the Kansas State Department of Education provides the number of all school districts employees for each district by job titles in just two categories: certified (or licensed) and non-certified.

KASB categorizes job titles and numbers by school district budget “functions,” based on KASB’s assessment of how the position title compares that function. Other organizations have grouped these staff titles in different ways. Each is a judgment call.

(Note: these positions are reported as “full-time equivalent” or FTE positions; in other words, a person who worked on half-time would be considered 0.5 FTE. Because many school jobs are less than full time, the total number of employees is higher.)

The following chart shows that about 75 percent of new positions (about 7,000) have been in direct instruction of students, divided between licensed teachers and non-licensed instructional staff including special education paraprofessionals and teacher aides.

 About 2,200 positions were added in student support (such as counselors, nurses, speech pathologists, social workers, etc.) and instructional support (libraries, curriculum support, and technology support). There have been small increases in school administration and the combined total of operations and maintenance, transportation, and food service; and a decrease in general (district) administration, central services like the business office and all other positions.

A table that shows how KASB assigns all KSDE-reported positions in these function categories, the number of FTE employees in 1998 and 2018, the change in number and the change percent is provided at the end of this report.

What do staff changes show about school district programs and priorities?

The biggest increase in school staff was for instruction, especially in early childhood and special education.

Out of over 7,000 new positions, more than 1,300 have been for early learning, including 775 kindergarten teachers as districts expanded all day kindergarten; 425 pre-kindergarten teachers as preschool programs were added, and 163 in Parents as Teacher programs. In special education, 683 teachers were added, along with 2,758 paraprofessionals. Another 853 regular classroom aids were added.

Special education paras and classroom aide positions have grown faster than teachers for three reasons. First, Kansas has long faced a teacher shortage in some areas, especially in special education. In many cases, more teachers are simply not available – and that problem is getting worse. Second, paras and aides can take over “non-teaching” duties from teachers, allowing them to focus on instruction and more individualized work with students. Third, paras and aides are not licensed and have lower salaries, offering a more cost-effective staffing option in some cases.

Schools added more support for student social and emotional needs and school safety.

Out of nearly 1,100 increased student support positions, schools added about 400 counselors, social workers and other social services staff, 179 nurses, and 78 school resources officers. Also added were over 200 audiologists, psychologists and speech pathologists, and about one clerical support position for every 10 professional positions.

Districts boosted support for improving curriculum, instruction and technology.

Out of 1,077 positions in instructional support, districts added over 950 positions in technology, titles that didn’t even exist in 1998, to accommodate the shift to internet-based learning, individual student computers and wired classroom. Districts also added over 240 instructional coordinators and supervisors and curriculum specialists to improve teaching and focus on curriculum standards and added 79 library media aides while cutting 307 library media specialists.

Principals have been reduced while other school staff increased.

Districts cut 80 principal positions but added 174 assistant principals, reflecting closure of smaller buildings and adding assistant positions that usually work in areas like student discipline, activities and staff supervision.

Districts reduced maintenance staff and added to transportation.

Schools have found ways to operate and maintain buildings with less staff, reducing positions by over 100. There has been almost no change in school food service total staff despite serving more students. (Districts may also be outsourcing some of the functions.) Districts have increased school transportation staff as more students are bused for reasons of safety, school attendance and expanding school choice.

Districts reduced general administration and central services support staff.

Districts have eliminated over 40 net superintendent, assistant and association superintendent positions and nearly 350 clerical and business support positions, while adding less than 100 business managers, directors, coordinators and supervisors.

Have districts added more “management” positions than other positions? 

In some areas, districts have reduced positions like clerical, food service and operations and maintenance, while adding more positions titled director, coordinator or supervisor. It is important to note those positions do not mean a new “layer of bureaucracy.” These positions are often not exclusively “supervisory:” the person may be doing considerable “hands on” work and be all or most of the district’s staff in the area, but have a title and salary reflecting higher skills and responsibility.

These changes reflect larger trends in the U.S. economy: increasing technological and other efficiencies are reducing lower skills jobs and shifting more duties to higher skill, more independent and “quasi-management” positions. It has been reported that virtually all net employment growth since the great recession of 2008 has been in higher skill jobs. School districts have followed the same pattern as the private sector.

 How do changes in school funding impact school employees?

For decades until 2009, Kansas school funding increased faster than inflation most years, which allowed districts to add employees, provide more individualized focus on students and expand programs, which in turn increased educational attainment, earnings and state economic growth. From 2009 to 2017, school funding was flat or declining compared to inflation and school staff was reduced, and student achievement outcomes weakened. Staff numbers began to recover last year when the Legislature provided increased funding.

School employment has not grown uniformly. The chart below shows employees by function annually since 1998. Positions increased with higher school funding around 2000 and after the Montoy school finance case in 2005 but were reduced when school funding was cut following the post-911 recession and great recession of 2008, and during the block grant period that froze funding.
Most of the long-term increase in school employment has been in instruction: teachers, aides, paras and a few other positions involved in direct instruction of students. Other areas of increase are student and instructional support. Most other areas have been flat or declining. General administration and central services are at the bottom and represent a very portion of school employees.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

What Kansas education cost studies found and how they have been used by the courts

Some legislators, candidates and organizations are complaining that the Kansas Supreme Court, rather than the Legislature, is setting the level of school funding in the state. However, it is important to understand that the court’s decisions have relied almost entirely on the evidence in studies requested and paid for the by the Legislature itself.

Since 2000, the Kansas Legislature has commissioned and funded three major education cost studies. 
The first was conducted by the consultants Augenblick and Myers and released in 2001. It was commissioned by the Legislature before the Montoy case reached the courts. It used two methods – professional judgment and successful schools model – and said the state needed to add about $229 million, or 8.1 percent more funding, to reach goals set by the Legislative Educational Planning Committee, the legislative body which oversaw both K-12 and higher education. 

With no other study or other evidence of education costs, the district court and Supreme Court accepted the A&M study as credible evidence in finding that the state was not providing constitutionally suitable funding. 
In response, the 2005 Legislature and a special session reached an agreement with the Supreme Court to increase school funding AND commission a new study, this one conducted by the Legislature’s own audit and research agency, the Legislative Division of Post Audit. 

The second study was released in early 2006, and also used two methods: an inputs” approach based on the costs of providing state required courses and services, and an “outcomes” approach based on meeting student assessment and graduation rate targets required by the federal No Child Left Behind act. The study said funding would need to increase between $316 million and $399 million to meet the state’s educational goals.  

Although the study did not find a national consensus among researchers about the link between funding and student achievement, it DID find in KANSAS a nearly one to one correlation” between funding and results. 
Based on this study, the Legislature agreed to a three-year plan to increase funding and a fourth year (2010) with an inflation adjustment in the base aid per pupil. The Supreme Court then dismissed the case. However, by 2010 state school aid was being reduced due to the recession and tax cuts, and has never fully recovered when adjusted for inflation. This led to the Gannon lawsuit. 

Although the 2017 Legislature added about $300 million to school funding spread over two years, the Supreme Court said the state had not shown clear evidence that amount would provide suitable funding. Last December, the Legislative Coordinating Council hired another consultant, Dr. Lori Taylor, to do a third cost study with the assistance of WestEd, as well as an independent peer review of that study. 

The Taylor study was designed to find the cost of achieving student test scores and graduation rates based on the State Board of Education’s federal plan for student achievement, the achievement of the top performing Kansas districts, and improvement that occurred when the system had been constitutionally funded after Montoy. It determined that it would cost an additional $400 million to raise graduation rates to 95 percent, $1.7 billion to get 90 percent of students to grade level on state tests, and $2 billion to get 60 percent of students to “college ready” on state tests. 

The study also specifically found a “strong, positive statistically significant correlation between funding and results,” and that Kansas school districts were highly efficient, among the best in the nation. The study methods were validated by the independent peer review. 

However, the Kansas Legislature decided not to use this much more expensive study as the basis of increased funding, but instead approved a five-year funding plan based on getting back to the 2010 level as determined by the LPA study, adjusted for inflation through 2017. Although the Gannon plaintiffs wanted the Supreme Court to use the new study to order even more funding, the court did not do so. It only said the Legislature must also adjust the five-year phase-in to keep up with inflation from 2017 until it is implemented. 
To summarize, all three education cost studies requested and funded by the Legislature itself have found that K-12 funding was not adequate to meet the state’s educational goals for students. Two of the studies specifically found that in Kansas, at least, funding does make a difference in student success. The most recent study also found that Kansas schools are highly efficient. 

In other words, the Kansas courts are not telling the Legislature how much to spend based on an amount judges make up on their own, or even requested by the plaintiffs. They are telling the Legislature it must fund schools based on its own evidence of what it costs to achieve the state’s educational goals.