Monday, September 30, 2013

Debate over "real" education funding cuts continues

Earlier this month, I posted a story about a new study from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) about changes in state funding for K-12 education. Among the findings:

  • Kansas had the fourth-deepest cuts in per pupil state funding between Fiscal Years 2008 and 2014 - 16.5 percent after adjusting for inflation.  (14 states actually raised spending per pupil over the period, including regional states such as Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota.)

  • Kansas was one of only 15 states to cut per pupil state funding from last year to this year, and had the third-deepest pupil cut in the nation (2.6 percent).  In the region, only Oklahoma cut spending aid per pupil this year.

If you missed it, here is a link to the full report.

Shortly afterwards, the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) posted this story, arguing the CBPP report was "deliberately misleading;" citing three major objections:

  • First, the CBPP report only considered state funding, which excludes other school district revenues.  (State aid excludes federal funding and local revenues, which provide about 8 percent and 37 percent of total Kansas school funding, respectively.)  KPI suggests revenue from the 20 mill statewide school levy and local option budget tax levies should be included as state funding because it is "provided through state authority."

  • Second, while KPI agrees that total funding per pupil has decreased since 2009 compared to inflation, as KASB has previously discussed (see my blog post "What is the real state of Kansas education funding?"), it presents data showing total spending per pupil is still up about 33 percent over 1998.

  • Third, KPI suggests that school districts could have made up for the lost of funding compared to inflation since 2008 if they had spent all operating funds received, rather than increasing cash balances.

This week, CBPP posted a blog responding to the KPI response, making two major points:

  • First, "a large part of this increase (in total funding) is a sizeable bump in state payments to the teacher retirement fund after years of underfunding left it in danger of not meeting its obligations.  That money will help retired teachers but it won’t help schools offset the big state aid cut."
  • Second, decreases in state funding have been somewhat offset by increases in local funding.  "But these modest increases come nowhere close to offsetting the deep cuts in general state aid.  And a shift in funding responsibilities from the state to localities tends to worsen funding inequities among school districts, since poor districts tend to have a much harder time raising local revenue."
KASB would offer these additional thoughts to this debate:

School Funding, Inflation and Taxpayer Support

The Kansas Policy Institute blog presents the following chart and explanation of inflation-adjusted school spending in Kansas:

This chart indicates that over the past 15 years, per pupil funding from all tax sources has increased significantly more than inflation.  However, so has taxpayer ability to provide that support.  In fact, total personal income in Kansas has risen from $42 billion in 1989 to $67.8 billion in 1998 to an estimated $124.5 billion in 2013: an increase of nearly 200% while the consumer price index increased about 80%.

The following chart from KASB data shows funding for school district general fund budgets, local options budgets and special education state aid - which is essentially the state aid plus “state-authorized local aid” described above by KPI - declined from about 4% of Kansas personal income in 1998 to slightly above 3 percent in 2013.  Total funding, which includes school construction and bond payments, capital outlay expenditures, KPERS contributions and other local revenues such as food service and student fees, has hovered at or just below 5 percent of state personal income for the past 25 years, but has been declining since 2009.

Kansas school spending has exceeded inflation for two major reasons.  First, Kansas personal income has increased faster than inflation because income in the private sector has increased more than inflation.  If schools are to compete for high quality employees, they need to keep up with overall wages and benefits.  Second, spending has increased to improve quality and outcomes by adding personnel, positions and investments in new technology and professional development.

This chart also makes clear that the state’s contribution to education, even including KPI’s description of “state authorized local funding,” is declining both compared to the overall Kansas economy and as a share of school funding.  The growing part of school funding are retirement contributions, building and equipment expenditures, food service and student fees.  All of these are important expenditures with a long-term impact on school quality, but they cannot be used to reduce cuts in salaries, positions and programs.

Could schools have avoided these cuts by spending down cash balances?

Consider this example: five years ago, you made $50,000 per year.  Your salary has been cut by $1,000 each of that last five years, so your current salary is $45,000.   However, you’ve been worried about the future, so you tightened your belt and put $1,000 a year into savings, so you have $5,000 more “in the bank” than you did five years ago.

Suppose you had spent that extra $1,000 each year instead of saving it.  Although you would have spent more each year, this year your income would still be $5,000 less than it was five years ago.  Or, you could decide to spend the whole $5,000 THIS YEAR.  Does spending $5,000 from savings AND $45,000 from salary mean your income hasn’t been reduced?  Obviously not, because next year, you won’t have the money in savings and your income will still be $45,000.

It’s exactly the same for schools.  Spending cash balances uses one-time money.  Rather than increasing cash reserves, school districts might have reduced cuts year by year, but that only delays spending cuts.   You can’t use savings to replace reductions in on-going revenues.

KPI offers the following chart to show the changes in school district July 1 cash balances in recent years.

Excluding capital and debt and federal funds, the chart indicates cash balances increased by over $300 million.  I took the annual increase in cash balances in this chart and added this amount to per pupil spending for the previous year.   This indicates what could have been spent if no additional funding had been placed in cash reserves.  I then compared that amount to both actual spending and spending adjusted to 2013 dollars.

As the chart below indicates, this would have provided a slightly higher per pupil amount each year, but the benefit declines as districts stop adding money to reserves.  (The Kansas State Department of Education has not yet released the July 1, 2013, balances so we don’t know if there was an increase for FY 2013.)

Conversely, what if districts had collectively spent the entire $300 million increase in reserves in FY 2013?  It would have increased spending by approximately $650 per pupil last year.  However, districts would have had to reduce spending by that amount in the current year, because they could not replace the use of one-time savings (unless districts used even more of their cash reserves).

Even if cash balances are considered, Kansas has experienced a real decrease in the per pupil funding compared to inflation.  This is compounded by the fact that current operating funding for teachers, support staff and programs have been reduced even more, although funding for retirement contributions, capital costs and debt service has increased.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thoughts on the State of U.S. (and Kansas) Education

The website Politico had a fascinating article this weekend entitled “Do American public schools really stink? Maybe not.”  You will want to read the whole story, but here are the key points and how they apply to Kansas.  KASB will be talking about many of these issues in our ten regional meetings across Kansas over the next three weeks. (To find out more and to register visit

U.S. Students are Falling Behind China and Rest of the World

The story begins with reports of alarm over the 2009 PISA international math test, given to 15-year-olds around the world. “Only 32 percent of American kids scored proficient, which puts us at 32nd in the world, miles behind perennial powerhouses like Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea — and also far behind nations less frequently thought of as academic superstars, including Estonia, Iceland and Slovenia.”

However, the story goes on to report that the U.S. did much better on another (and more recent) test, the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).  As a nation, the U.S. ranked 11th for fourth grade math and 9th for eighth grade math.  Moreover, several U.S. states also participated, and four scored above the U.S. as a whole at 8th grade.  If these states had been participating as individual nations, Massachusetts would have ranked 6th, Minnesota 7th, North Carolina 9th and Indiana 10th.  Although Kansas did not participate, Kansas eighth grade math scores on the 2011 National Assessment for Education Progress were below Massachusetts and Minnesota but higher than North Carolina and Indiana, suggesting that Kansas would rank as a top 10 country, as well as a top 10 state, for math performance.  See details in the chart below:

Experts quoted in the story note the U.S. has scored relatively low on international tests for decades, yet has remained an economic superpower in part because of other qualities stressed in American schools over test-taking.  However, long-term economic trends clearly favor more educated individuals.  Kansas is in a better position than most states because it ranks high in adult educational attainment - higher than any states in the region except for Colorado and Minnesota.  However, other industrialized countries have, on average, increased college completion by young adults much faster than the U.S. and Kansas.

We’re Spending More but Schools Are Getting Worse

School spending has increased over the past several decades - but so has the overall economy. The article notes a significant portion of increased school spending has gone to serve students that previously were excluded from public schools or received far less attention and had much less success: special education, bilingual and low-income “at risk” students.

That is certainly true in Kansas. Since 2004, school district operating budgets (general fund plus local option budgets) have increased about $1 billion, and about half was targeted at special education state aid and “restricted” weightings for programs such as at-risk and bilingual services.  In addition, another $250 million was increased for funding the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, which has almost no impact on current educational services.

Adjusted for inflation and applied per pupil, the facts are even more stark. “Current” spending per pupil for annual operating costs is almost unchanged since 2004 when adjusted to 2013 dollars.  The only significant increase in spending since 2004 has been in KPERS contributions and local bond issues and capital outlay funding approved by local voters. See my earlier blog "What is the real state of Kansas Education Funding?"

The Politico article also points out that many measures of student achievement have actually increased since the 1970’s, including long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress results, graduation rates and college completion. Even more significant is the fact that the U.S. (and Kansas) student populations include many more low-income, minority and immigrant students who tend to perform at lower levels, and these groups have all made progress. This means that additional spending on these students really is paying off.

I talked about these trends in more detail in an a blog post last month.  I noted that despite significant increases in the dollar amount of education spending, funding for K-12 education in the United States is slightly lower as a percentage of personal income, i.e., total taxpayer income, than it was in the 1970’s.  The same is true for Kansas.

An Education Problem or an Equity Problem?

Despite progress over the past 40 years, low income students - who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic - still have significantly lower achievement levels than their more advantaged peers.  Schools, districts and states with more low income students tend to have much lower performance than schools, districts and states with fewer low income students.

There are two basic solutions proposed to solve this dilemma: more resources or more reform.  The “more resources” camp says “failing schools” are really the result of impoverished neighborhoods and families, and can only be addressed by additional financial resources to offset the lack of resources available for those children.  The “more reform” side argues that more money hasn’t solved the educational inequities so far, and that only new alternatives like charter schools, private school vouchers and tougher standards for teachers and students will work.

Of course, as noted above, the performance of disadvantaged student groups HAS improved over the past 40 years, especially over the past decade, at the same time new resources have been targeted to these groups.  Moreover, the highest achieving states generally spend the most money per pupil, and the lowest performing states the least. Kansas ranks 7th on an average of four measures of educational attainment through 2012. Every state that ranks higher than Kansas spends more per pupil.

It’s true that higher achieving states also tend to have far fewer low income students, and low achieving states have the most low income students.  To some that may suggest the student population determines achievement, not funding.  But we also know that higher educational attainment results in higher individual income levels and less poverty.  Therefore, it is plausible that states spending more in education and getting better results will have fewer disadvantaged students BECAUSE they invest more in education.

On the other hand, there appears to be no correlation between high state achievement and popular “reform” efforts like charter schools, extensive online programs, vouchers and grade retention based on reading tests.  Florida, for example, is often touted as a model state for education reform. However, on the 2013 ACT test, Florida tested about the same percentage of graduating seniors as Kansas, but had a much lower percentage of “college ready” graduates than Kansas among African-American and White students, and no better scores for Hispanic students.  I explored the relations between funding and achievement in my blog post "Higher funding linked to higher college readiness." Florida also has lower NAEP results than Kansas, not only for all students but for low income students. That means Florida’s lower scores are not simply the result of MORE low income students.

In my view, the Politico article reinforces these positions on education in Kansas and nationally. Public education has made a great deal of progress to be proud of, but economic and social changes demand continued improvement in outcomes.  Funding DOES make a positive impact on achievement, and is far more important than “reform” initiatives that may undercut the commitment of quality public education for all.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Common Core in Kansas: A Basic Primer

Common Core academic standards are back in the news this week, with the Kansas Republican State Committee adopting a resolution opposing the standards and the Kansas State Board of Education, which adopted the standards in 2010, reviewing a new set of documents to explain and defend them.

KASB is releasing the following information to help clarify the controversy around these standards in Kansas. Feel free to share this information with your community.

Background on the Common Core

How were the Common Core Standards adopted in Kansas?

Since 1992, state law has directed the Kansas State Board of Education to adopt academic standards in core subjects, provide tests in those areas to see how well students are meeting those standards, and update those standards in regular cycles.

The State Board has used committees of educators and others to develop Kansas standards, in part by basing their work on standards developed by national organizations.  This means Kansas has always looked to experts and standards outside of the state as a frame of reference for what our students should know as they pass through school.

When Kansas was due to update its Reading/Language Arts and Mathematics standards in 2010 under the usual schedule and process, committees of Kansas educators and Kansas State Department of Education staff evaluated the Common Core standards, which were developed by state leaders across the country, and decided to recommend the State Board adopt them.  After over a year of study, public input and hearings, the State Board did so in October, 2010, with some modifications.  They are now called the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards.

How were the Common Core Standards developed?

The standards were not developed by the President, the U.S. Department of Education, or Congress.  Instead, they were developed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to provide a “common” set of standards for student reading and math expectations across the United States, with the support of major business leaders.

In other words, the standards were developed by governors elected by the people in the 50 states; and by state school officials who are directly elected in some states, appointed by Governors in other states, or appointed by state boards of education that are elected or appointed by Governors or other state leaders. (In Kansas, the Commissioner is appointed by the elected State Board.)

Each state is free to choose whether or not to adopt the standards.  At this point, 45 of the 50 states have adopted either the reading or math standards, or both.  States cannot change the standards beyond a specified amount but can drop the Common Core and adopt new standards at any time.

What is the role of the federal government in the Common Core?

For the past decade under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), states have been required to adopt academic standards and test students in grades 3-8 and high school for “proficiency” in reading and math to qualify for federal education aid.  However, there is no requirement for consistency in either standards or the definition of proficient across the states.

With Congress unable to agree on changes to address major concerns about NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education began granting waivers from certain provisions but required states to adopt new, higher standards to be eligible.  The Common Core was one way, but not the only way, to meet this requirement.  Kansas adopted the Common Core before the waiver process was even announced.

The U.S. Education Department also made the Common Core one way to qualify for a state grant competition called Race to the Top and is funding the development of two state groups developing new tests based on the Common Core.  However, no state is required to participate in Race to the Top or use the federally funded tests.

Why was the Common Core developed and adopted?

First, the U.S. economy is changing from most jobs requiring a high school diploma or less and relatively simple, repetitive job skills to most jobs requiring some level of education beyond high school and more advanced, complex skills.  The Common Core was designed to identify the skills and knowledge students need to be successful in vocational, technical, or academic programs after school and in employment, which, by the way, aligns perfectly with the Kansas Constitution.  That is why these standards are referred to as “College and Career-Ready,” with an understanding that “college” postsecondary skills are defined as technical training and/or two-year degrees as well as bachelor’s degrees and beyond.

Second, the U.S. economy must compete with other countries, many of which are meeting and surpassing American educational outcomes.  The Common Core was designed to match educational expectations of our international competitors.

Third, in our mobile society, students and their families move frequently for employment, military service, and higher education. These transitions would be easier if state educational expectations were more similar.  That is one reason the Common Core is strongly supported by many business and corporate leaders, the U.S. military, and higher education.

Fourth, by adopting common academic standards, it would be easier for states to compare their academic performance, and help determine what state policies are working most effectively.

Instead of requiring all 50 states to develop individual standards to meet this same set of needs, the Common Core initiative allowed states to work together.

Does this mean the Common Core is a national curriculum with a national assessment?

Standards are not curriculum.  Standards identify an outcome or a destination, not the path required to get there.

In Kansas, local school boards will continue to make decisions about the textbooks and other materials students use, and teachers will continue to decide how to present the subject.  There are no state (or national) requirements for using or not using particular books or content, although there are numerous lists of examples schools may consider. The choice remains with the local school board.

The State Board is expected to decide what tests to use for the new standards this fall, but Kansas is already required by NCLB to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which some critics of public education have said is a better test than current state assessments, and most high school juniors and seniors take the national ACT or SAT test.

What is my local district doing with Common Core?

Since the standards were adopted by the Kansas State Board of Education in 2010, many districts have already taken steps to implement the standards.  You can check with your child’s teacher or principal to determine where they are in the implementation process.

What are some of the concerns about the Common Core?

Does the Common Core unconstitutionally expand federal power over education?

The Common Core doesn't change federal authority at all. The State Board decided on its own Constitutional authority, to adopt standards in common with other states and can change them at any time.  Because adopting the Common Core was one way Kansas could qualify for the NCLB waiver, Kansas now has more flexibility. Getting out of the Common Core would require Kansas to start over on a new set of standards, and go back under NCLB regulations until they are adopted and approved.

Was it adopted in Kansas without adequate public input or field testing?

The Common Core was adopted through the same process as previous standards, which has never included “field testing.”  Local school districts are actually implementing the Common Core “on the ground” by selecting their own local curriculum, teaching practices, and materials as they see fit.  In many schools, these decisions are still being made, and parents and patrons can work with their locally elected school boards to address concerns.

How will we know if the Common Core improves educational outcomes?

Like any new system, the real results of the Common Core process will not be known for several years. Kansas can expect to see lower scores on new state assessments of the Common Core, because they will be harder tests measuring more challenging materials. Setting a higher standard is an important step to improvement.  However, Kansans will continue to see independent measures such as NAEP tests, graduation rates, ACT scores, and postsecondary participation. These will provide evidence of whether the Common Core is improving educational outcomes or not and allow state policy to change if needed.

Will the Common Core and related tests be too expensive?

The Kansas Legislative Post Audit Division estimated the cost of implementing the Common Core, new assessments and a new teacher evaluation system at between $34 and $63 million over the next five years - less than 0.2% of current total expenditures. Most of the cost is for teacher training, modifying curriculum, and new textbooks and materials.  Most of these costs were already planned, such as a regular schedule for replacing textbooks.  The same costs would occur if Kansas had adopted a different set of standards and will be repeated if Kansas drops the Common Core and starts over.  Kansas hasn’t chosen a new set of tests, so we don’t even know what they will cost.  The new tests are expected to be more expensive because they will be more complex, as they will evaluate students on more complex skills.  However, unlike some states, Kansas is already giving its state assessments online, using computers, so there should not be additional technology costs.  In fact, Legislative Post Audit said the new system may actually save money at the state level.

The real cost of the Common Core is not in adopting the standards, assessments and materials, but in actually getting more students to successfully learn the new, higher standards.

Will the Common Core force all students into a college-prep track, limiting student options?

First, the Common Core only applies to reading and math.  It does not require all students to meet standards for a four-year college degree in those or other subjects.  It is designed to ensure all students have the appropriate skills for various postsecondary career options. Right now, too many students leave high school unprepared for either college, technical training or a higher-skill workplace.  The Common Core should actually give students more real choices, because they will have a stronger set of reading and math skills to use if they change their minds about career goals after high school.

Will the new tests collect and share more private, personalized data about students and families?

The Department of Education will not collect and transmit any more data from new assessments than is already required and authorized by law under the old tests.

Do the Common Core Standards require specific texts, reading materials, and novels, poetry and books?

The standards have long lists of suggested reading materials and texts, but none are required.  Specific textbooks and reading materials remain a local decision in Kansas.

Examples from the Common Core:

Second Grade Math:

  • CCSS.Math.Content.2.MD.A.1 Measure the length of an object by selecting and using appropriate tools such as rulers, yardsticks, meter sticks, and measuring tapes.
Seventh Grade Math:

  • CCSS.Math.Content.7.G.B.6 Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, volume and surface area of two- and three-dimensional objects composed of triangles, quadrilaterals, polygons, cubes, and right prisms.
High School Math:
  • CCSS.Math.Content.HSS-CP.B.8 (+) Apply the general Multiplication Rule in a uniform probability model, P(A and B) = P(A)P(B|A) = P(B)P(A|B), and interpret the answer in terms of the model.
First Grade Reading:
Fifth Grade Reading:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.9 Compare and contrast stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries and adventure stories) on their approaches to similar themes and topics.
High School Reading:
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9 Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.