Friday, July 18, 2014

Five questions for the new performance and efficiency commission

The Kansas K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission holds its first meeting today.  After the first two appointments by House Speaker Ray Merrick - Dave Trabert of the Kansas Policy Institute and former House Speaker Mike O’Neal of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Industry - raised some eyebrows due to their long-standing criticism of many aspects of school districts’ operations, other appointments have created a fairly diverse group.

The Commission now includes two other former legislators widely seen as strong supporters of public education (Senate Vice President John Vratil and Assistant Minority Leader Janis Lee); two superintendents (Shawnee Mission’s Jim Henson and Concordia’s Bev Mortimer); two principals (Meg Wilson of Hoisington High School and Ken Thiessen of Wichita East High School), and Sam Williams, former chairman of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and a retired advertising executive.  The election of a chair from among these members will be a early sign of the commission’s direction.

(In addition to the voting members, the commissioner of education, the director of the budget, the revisor of statutes, the legislative post auditor and the director of the Legislative Research Department are nonvoting, ex-officio members of the commission.)

Here are some questions the Commission will have to confront:

1.  Is the primary goal to reduce spending or to improve results?

Could Kansas spend less on education?  Kansas ranked 27th in the nation in total revenue per pupil in 2012 (the most recent year national data is available). That is about $800 below the national average.  That means 23 states spent less on each K-12 student.  However, past KASB research has found that each of those 23 states either had lower overall performance on national tests, graduation rates and attainment of educational credentials, or had fewer low income students (who have significantly lower achievement in every state) than Kansas.  KASB is updating this research with new funding and achievement data released this summer.

In fact, the data consistently shows the amount of spending per pupil has a moderate to strong positive correlation with higher academic results.  In other words, more money does TEND to equal higher academic performance.  It is not a perfect correlation by any means - some states get a better “bang for the buck” than others.  However, Kansas is already one of the highest achieving states for the money it spends and the type of students it educates. Specifically, Kansas spends below the national average and is very close to the national average in the percent of low income students, but scores above the national average on virtually every achievement measure KASB has tracked.

As the commission considers recommendations, it will be critically important to examine whether such proposals not only lower costs but also improve educational outcomes.  If Kansas wants better results, we need to look at what states with better performance are doing.

2.  Are there easy ways to reduce educational spending?  

The Kansas Division of Legislative Post Audit has been conducting school district efficiency audits for five years.  Unless the LPA has come up with a different message than it has presented in the past, it will explain that almost all of the “easy” steps to cut costs do not save much money. Significant savings only come from making very difficult choices likely to create significant community opposition: closing buildings, cutting teachers and student services, or outsourcing expenditures away from local employees and vendors.

The simple fact is that “administrative” or “backroom” operations are already a very small part of school district budgets.  Most districts are already involved in numerous cooperative programs. However, many districts continue to operate schools or programs that may seem less efficient than some alternatives because their patrons value those programs.  Which leads to the next question.

3.  Who decides the value of “efficient” or “inefficient” operations?

It is important to remember the state, not local school districts, largely determines how much money districts get to spend on operating budgets through the base budget and weightings and limits on the amount of local option budgets.  Local school boards then make decisions on how to use those funds.  It can be a helpful management tool to consider how one district’s expenditures in certain areas compare to others, but those numbers alone will not tell the whole story.

One district may spend more on student support programs like nurses, counselors and social workers because its community lacks those services from other sources.  Another may spend more on certain purchases like fuel, vehicles and insurance because it wants to support local businesses, even if the cost somewhat higher than alternatives.  Another may want to keep open a school with excess capacity or higher operating costs in order to keep an educational presence in a small community or neighborhood, as way to sustain parent and business involvement.

The issue is not whether these choices are right or wrong. The issue is who should make the choice: the local district through its elected school board or the state?  Who will have to live with the consequences?

4.  How is efficiency measured?

Efficiency is usually defined as getting the best outcomes for the lowest cost or inputs.  Total cost is relatively simple to measure; although the details can be more complicated.  However, measuring educational outcomes on a statewide basis is usually limited to state test scores in reading and math and a few other subjects tested sporadically.  KASB has consistently heard from school leaders and patrons that educational expectations are much broader than standardized tests can measure.

The same bill creating the Performance and Efficiency Commission, HB 2506, adopted new educational goals based on the “Rose” capacities identified by the Kansas Supreme Court.  These goals only directly mention written and oral communications skills among subjects currently tested by the state.  But they also include civic and social engagement, physical and mental health, arts and cultural appreciation, and both academic and vocational preparation for postsecondary education and the workplace.  None of these important educational outcomes - included in the new educational standards - are currently factored into calculations of efficiency.  That is a critical issue for the commission to consider.

Consider recent state legislation and regulations concerning bullying and emergency safety interventions, such as restraining or removing students who pose a threat to themselves or others.  These requirements add significant new costs for staff training and supervision, but are unlikely to improve state reading and math tests.  Therefore, these requirements may be consider “inefficient” because they add costs with improving the only results measured.  However, the Legislature and Kansas State Board of Education clearly value these steps to improve student safety, as do educators, school boards and parents.

5.  How can the state support districts to get better results with available funding?

None of these questions should suggest there is no value to the commission’s work; or that school districts shouldn’t constantly look for ways to get the maximum educational results for the dollars they spend.  One of the reasons the Kansas Association of School Boards exists is to help districts work together to provide more efficient - and effective - ways of operating.  The national performance and spending data described above suggests that Kansas school leaders already take this issue very seriously.  The commission - and the state - need to see local districts as partners looking to achieve the same goals, not obstacles to be overcome.

This means the commission should start with the principle ‘first, do no harm.’ Beware the unintended consequences of new policies.  Remember, Kansas is already a high performing state with below average costs.  What may seem like “inefficiencies” from one perspective (smaller class sizes, schools and districts than most states) could be among the factors contributing to higher achievement.

Second, be consistent.  Ironically, some of the same advocates for consolidating school district operations at a “higher” administrative level also support creating independent charter schools or shifting authority to the building level that would not be required to coordinate anything with local districts.  Likewise, some proposals for additional school budgeting requirements would actually increase district administrative costs with no obvious benefit.  On one hand there are strong advocates for innovation, freedom and flexibility.  On the other hand, here are calls for more controls on how local districts operate.

Third, carrots usually work better than sticks.  KASB has consistently supported incentives for school district consolidation, cooperative and sharing of programs, but also believes the final decision should be made at the local level.  The best approach is not for the state to tell local districts what to do, but to help provide local leaders with the information, training and support to evaluate all options, decide on the best choices for their community; and build support among local patrons.

The commission has an important role for the simple fact that money will always be limited, and educational needs to continue to grow.  The Kansas Constitution requires a system of public schools for “intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement.”  The goal should be finding ways to provide the best educational results for Kansas students. In other words, don’t forget that “Performance” comes before “Efficiency” in the commission’s title.

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