Barack Obama on American public education

Jay P. Greene shares observations from Matthew Ladner on President Barack Obama’s false understanding of public education in America.

It is a shame that the only thing that seemed to draw headlines from a recent panel discussion on poverty including President Obama was a silly throw away line about Fox News. The entire discussion, which included Robert Putnam and AEI’s Arthur Brooks deeply deserves your time. The event transcript can be found here.

Go read it. Like now. All four participants had very interesting things to say, far more than can be reflected upon in a blog post.

So this quote from President Obama got my attention:

Continue reading at President Obama is Entitled to His Own Opinion but Not His Own Facts on Poverty and Education

Kansas school employment ratios

Ratios of teachers to pupils, and ratios of certified employees to pupils for the ten largest school districts in Kansas. Data from Kansas State Department of Education.

For an interactive visualization of employment levels and ratios in all Kansas school districts, click here to open the visualization in a new window. Data is from Kansas State Department of Education. Visualization created by myself using Tableau Public.

Kansas school district employment ratios, ten largest districts. Click for larger version.
Kansas school district employment ratios, ten largest districts. Click for larger version.

In Kansas, tax increases could have been avoided

Kansas CapitolThe Kansas Legislature has had several years to come up with plans for reforming government spending. But it didn’t do that. Now, leaders in the Kansas legislature and executive branch tell us the only way to balance the Kansas budget this year is by raising more revenue through taxation. That may be true, as reforming spending and budgeting takes time to accomplish.

We — the legislature — had the time. But our legislature and executive branch squandered that opportunity. Now, they ask you for more tax revenue.

For more on this issue, see: In Kansas, a lost legislative opportunity and Efficiency has not come to Kansas government.

Wichita fails at government transparency, again

At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know. From May 2014.

At its May 20, 2014 meeting the Wichita City Council considered approval of a sublease by Shannon No. 2, LLC. The subject property had received subsidy from the city under an economic development program, which is why council approval of the sublease was required. I’ll cover the economics of the lease and its importance to public policy in another article. For now, the important issue is the attitude of the city towards government transparency and citizen participation.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
In the agenda packet — that’s the detailed and often lengthy supplement to the council meeting agenda — some information regarding the Shannon lease was redacted, as you can see in the accompanying illustration. This piqued my interest, so I asked for the missing details.


The agenda packet is often made available Thursday afternoon, although sometimes it is delayed until Friday or even Monday. I sent an email message to the city’s chief information officer at 11:16 pm Thursday. After the message worked its way through several city departments, I received the information at 5:06 pm Monday. Since city council meetings are Tuesday morning, that left little time for research and contemplation.

This isn’t the first time citizens have been left with little information and even less time before council meetings. I was involved in an issue in 2008 where there was little time for citizens — council members, too — to absorb information before a council meeting. About this incident, former Wichita Eagle editorial board editor Randy Brown wrote this in a letter to the Eagle:

I’m fairly well acquainted with Bob Weeks, our extraconservative government watchdog. It’s fair to say that I agree with Weeks no more than one time in every 20 issues. But that one time is crucial to our democracy.

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public’s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue. Randy Brown: Reopen Downtown Wichita Arena TIF Public Hearing

little-time-review-warren-loan-termsThe Wichita officials involved in this matter were council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). Longwell’s behavior and attitude is part of a pattern, because in another incident in the same year the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita City Council members and the public got a first look at the contracts that could send a $6 million loan to the owners of the Old Town Warren Theatre just hours before today’s scheduled vote on the matter.” (Little time to review Warren terms, July 1, 2008)

That article quoted council member Longwell thusly: “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier.” This attitude is common among Wichita elected officials and bureaucrats, in my experience. The city formally lobbies the Kansas Legislature opposing any expansion of the Kansas Open Records Act, for example.

Consent agenda

The Shannon item was placed on the consent agenda. This is where items deemed to be non-controversial are voted on in bulk, perhaps two dozen or more at a time. Unless a council member asks to have an item “pulled” for discussion and a possible vote separate from the other consent items, there will be no discussion of any issues.

In 2012 there was an issue on the consent agenda that I felt deserved discussion. I researched and prepared an article at For Wichita’s Block 1 garage, public allocation is now zero parking spaces. At the council meeting, then-council member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) requested that I be able to present my findings to the council. But Mayor Carl Brewer and all five other city council members disagreed. They preferred to proceed as though the issue didn’t exist or was non-controversial. The message — the attitude — was that no time should be spent receiving information on the item. See For Wichita City Council, discussion is not wanted.

Wichita city officials, including Mayor Carl Brewer, say they are proud of the open and transparent city government they have created. But this episode, as well as others described in In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency, lets everyone know that transparency is dispensed, and accountability accepted, at the whim of the mayor, city council, and their bureaucratic enablers.

On his Facebook page, Clinton Coen wrote this about his city council representative James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and this incident:

“I am once again ashamed of my City Councilman. Councilman Clendenin should have stood alongside his colleague, Councilman O’Donnel, and allowed a citizen to address his concerns on an agenda item. All Mr. Clendenin had to do was say “second” and Mr. Weeks could have addressed the council, provided that a majority of the council voted to allow it. Instead, Mr. Clendenin chose to censor someone that has a differing opinion. By bringing it to a vote, accountability would have been created, instead the remainder of the council chose to take the cowardly path.”

Why redacted in the first place?

As shown in the earlier illustration, the city redacted a large chunk of information from the agenda packet that it made available to the public. The city did — after some time — positively It's easy to say value transparencyrespond to my request for the complete document. Which begs these questions: Why did the city feel that some information needed to be kept secret? Did city council members have access to the redacted information? Did any members of the public besides myself ask for the information? How many citizens might have been discouraged from asking by fear of the the hassle of asking city hall for information like this?

There’s also the consideration that the citizens of Wichita are parties to this transaction. How well these incentive programs work and what effect they have on the Wichita economy is an important matter of public policy. Without relatively complete information, citizens are not in a position to make judgments.


Often council members and bureaucrats complain that providing information to citizens is a financial burden to the city. But in this case, I’m sure the city would have been dollars ahead if it had simply published the complete lease in the agenda packet. My request bounced around several city offices — three that I know of — and I imagine that each handling of my request added cost.


The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. wichita-wins-transparency-award-2013For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

The incidents describe above, combined with others, demonstrate that it’s easy for officials to say they value transparency and accountability. The actual delivery, however, is difficult for our current leaders.

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. The incident described in this article is one more example of a divergence between the proclamations of city officials and their acts. It’s an attitude problem. All city hall has to do is get a new attitude.

For more on this topic, see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

Government planning, itself, is dangerous

The very existence of a government plan is dangerous, as its construction creates powerful constituencies that have shaped it to fit their needs and are highly motivated to see it implemented. From April 2013.

In Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton defended the regional community planning initiative underway in south-central Kansas. (Tim Norton: Planning effort helps shape region’s future)

Much of the Commissioner’s article simply described the program and the need for it in vague generalities that are neither correct or incorrect, and which do little to advance understanding of what is really likely to happen.

But Norton did write something useful when he attempted to deflect the fact that this is a government plan, backed by the ability of government to compel compliance (or make it very expensive to avoid). He wrote: “This is not about any one governing body or level of government imposing or mandating what we should do. It is about what we decide collectively is best for our region and then choosing to make it happen.”

When the Sedgwick County Commission voted to participate in this HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant, some commissioners justified their votes in favor of the plan because “it’s only a plan.” If we develop a plan, and then we find we don’t like it, we can shelve it. Problem solved.

This meme of “it’s only a plan” that can be shelved is likely to be repeated. Watch for it.

Except: By shelving time, millions will have been invested in the plan. Reputations like Norton’s will depend on adopting the plan. Bureaucratic jobs will be at stake (See Sedgwick County considers a planning grant for an explanation of how planning helps make work for bureaucrats and academics.)

Besides boosting the interests of politicians and bureaucrats, the government planning process started in south-central Kansas will likely be captured by special interest groups that see ways to benefit from the plan. The public choice school of economics and political science has taught us how special interest groups seek favors from government at enormous costs to society, and we will see this at play again over the next years.

Once the planning process begins, special interests plot to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public. We saw this at work in the first project to emerge after the Wichita downtown planning process (Project Downtown), where public policy was shaped on the fly to meet the needs of politically-connected special interests, at detriment to the public.

Most importantly: The very existence of a government plan is dangerous, as the plan itself becomes a reason to proceed, contrary to reason and harm to liberty and economic freedom.

An example of how much reverence is given to government plans comes right from the U.S. Supreme Court in the decision Kelo v. New London, in which the Court decided that government could use the power of eminent domain to take one person’s property and transfer it to someone else for the purposes of economic development. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Stevens cited the plan: “The City has carefully formulated an economic development plan that it believes will provide appreciable benefits to the community.” Here we see the importance of the plan and due reverence given to it.

Stevens followed up, giving even more weight to the plan: “To effectuate this plan, the City has invoked a state statute that specifically authorizes the use of eminent domain to promote economic development. Given the comprehensive character of the plan, the thorough deliberation that preceded its adoption, and the limited scope of our review, it is appropriate for us, as it was in Berman, to resolve the challenges of the individual owners, not on a piecemeal basis, but rather in light of the entire plan. Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.”

To Stevens, the fact that the plan was comprehensive was a factor in favor of its upholding. The sustainable communities plan, likewise, is nothing but comprehensive, as described by county manager Bill Buchanan in a letter to commissioners: “[the plan will] consist of multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic prosperity, social equity, energy use and climate change, and public health and environmental impact.”

That pretty much covers it all. When you’re charged with promoting economic prosperity, defending earth against climate change, and promoting public health, there is no limit to the types of laws you might consider. This likely to be the argument to follow whatever emerges from Commissioner Norton’s planning process.

Kansas City Star on Kansas economic growth

A Kansas City Star editorial says that in the Kansas City area, jobs aren’t fleeing Missouri after Kansas tax cuts. But as is often the case, the newspaper sets up a straw man argument and makes selective use of data. Dave Trabert explains. From Kansas Policy Institute.

Kansas City Star misleads again on Kansas economic growth

By Dave Trabert


A recent Kansas City Star editorial says that In the Kansas City area, jobs aren’t fleeing Missouri after Kansas tax cuts, but as is often the case, they set up a straw man argument (e.g., “fleeing” isn’t the issue) and make selective use of data to make their point. A conclusive analysis of the efficacy of tax reform will require many more years of data but there a number of encouraging early signs that the Star overlooks.

First of all, the Star doesn’t disclose that nonfarm jobs is the basis of their editorial, which is the total of government and private sector jobs.  Another Star editorial calling out Kansas Policy Institute a few days ago said it is “utter nonsense” to measure the health of an economy by growth in the private sector rather than government.  The Star hasn’t said whether they will allow a response at this writing, but we disagree with their position.  The money to fund government comes from the private sector; further, government can grow by overtaxing and suppressing private sector growth. 

It is hard to imagine that their failure to disclose the inclusion of government is a coincidence, but let’s keep the focus on nonfarm jobs for now in order to demonstrate another issue with their analysis.

The Star uses point-to-point comparisons of January 2014 and January 2015 to make their case that the Missouri side of the Kansas City Metro is growing faster than the Kansas side.  The problem with point-to-point comparisons is that one or both points can be unusual spikes or declines.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes average annual employment, which minimizes the impact of any single data point.

Shifting the analysis by one month and comparing December employment for 2013 and 2014 shows that Kansas outperformed Missouri 3.4 percent to 2.3 percent, the opposite of their position.  The Star says Missouri did better than Kansas since tax reform was enacted but they compare January 2013 and January 2015; December 2012 is the last month before tax reform was implemented and with that as the base, Kansas beat Missouri.

Kansas nonfarm jobs grew by 2.4 percent between December 2012 and January 2015 whereas Missouri increased by 1.9 percent. 

It’s also interesting that the Star used January data for their post-tax reform comparison rather than the most current March data; the Kansas margin is even wider, at 3.8 percent compared to 2.9 percent for Missouri.

The more stable comparisons of average annual employment also show Kansas to be the clear winner, whether using nonfarm jobs or the more pertinent measure of private sector employment.  Using nonfarm jobs, Kansas beat Missouri in 2013 by a margin of 2.1 percent to 0.2 percent and won again in 2014 by a margin of 2.7 percent to 1.3 percent.  Using private sector jobs, Kansas beat Missouri in 2013 by a margin of 2.5 percent to 0.5 percent and won again in 2014 by a margin of 3.0 percent to 1.7 percent. 

Moving now to private sector job growth, Kansas outperformed Missouri in the first two years since tax reform, 5.6 percent versus 2.2 percent.  Missouri is doing better than Kansas in the first quarter of 2015, with a preliminary lead of 3.8 percent to 2.7 percent but comparing average annual jobs for the first quarter of 2015 with the 2012 average still favors Kansas, 4.9 percent to 3.3 percent.

Kansas is showing even better progress on statewide job growth.  Private sector jobs only increased by 2.2% between 1998 and 2012 (average annual jobs for 1998 and 2012, seasonally adjusted); that growth rate put Kansas at #38 among the fifty states.  In 2013, private sector employment grew 1.6% and Kansas was ranked #27 in the nation. Last year Kansas moved up to #21 with growth of 1.9%.  

Kansas almost reached parity with its income-taxing peers last year, which is also a significant improvement in competitiveness.  Kansas private sector jobs grew at just 61% of its income-taxing peers’ 3.6% growth rate between 1998 and 2012, but 2013 and 2014 growth was at 78% and 95%, respectively.   Kansas job growth was also better in 2014 than the neighboring states of Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Job growth isn’t the only measure by which Kansas is outperforming Missouri.  The extent to which tax reform should be credited for the improvement cannot be determined but the shift in performance is quite noteworthy.

Private sector GDP isn’t available yet for 2014 but Kansas outperformed the 50-state average in 2013, as well as its income-taxing peers and the ten states with the highest state and local tax burden (as ranked by The Tax Foundation).  Kansas trailed each group in the fourteen years preceding tax reform. 

Rankings among neighboring states didn’t change; Kansas widened its lead over Missouri but was less competitive with other neighboring states in 2013.    One year certainly doesn’t qualify as a trend but it’s encouraging to see Kansas more competitive on a national scale.

Data on Personal Income growth is available for 2014, however, and Kansas has improved in the two years since tax reform was enacted on several measures.

Total personal income in Kansas (which includes dividends, interest, rent, wage and salary earnings, proprietor earnings, employer payments for payroll taxes, health care and retirement plus government transfer payments for government and the private sector) increased by 5.67% between 2012 and 2014, ranking #24 in the nation and much better than its #33 ranking between 1998 and 2012.   Kansas did slightly better than the states that tax income and was closer to the performance of the 50-state average.  Kansas outperformed Missouri and Nebraska and was more competitive with Oklahoma.

Kansas also shows improvement in Nonfarm Private Earnings, which includes all nonfarm private sector components of Personal Income.  Kansas trailed the 50-state average in the fourteen years prior to tax reform but its 9.5 percent growth over the last two years exceeds the 8.7 percent average of all states.  Kansas also outperformed Missouri, and while not unusual, the margin of victory has widened.   Kansas trailed Nebraska and Oklahoma in the past but has pulled ahead in the last two years.

None of this means that tax reform can be declared a success yet as one or two years is not near enough time to make such a judgement, but the early signs are encouraging.

Tax Foundation: State and local sales tax rates in 2015

From Tax Foundation. The link to the study is here.

State and Local Sales Tax Data for 2015
How does your state compare to its neighbors?

Antique cash register old detail vintage-653946_1280Washington, DC (Apr 8, 2015)—This morning, the nonpartisan Tax Foundation released an updated report of sales taxes throughout the states in 2015. Using a population-weighted average of local sales taxes, the report details the combined state and local sales tax rates for each state and explains how sales taxes fit into a state’s overall tax structure.

The key findings include:

  • 45 states collect statewide sales taxes.
  • 38 states collect local sales taxes.
  • The five states with the highest average combined state-local sales tax rates are Tennessee (9.45 percent), Arkansas (9.26 percent), Alabama (8.91 percent), Louisiana (8.91 percent), and Washington (8.89 percent).
  • Sales tax rates differ by state, but sales tax bases also impact how much revenue is collected from a tax and how the tax affects the economy.
  • Differences in sales tax rates cause consumers to shop across borders or buy products online.

“Sales taxes are some of the most easily understood taxes because every time a consumer makes a purchase, they can see the rate on the receipt,” says Tax Foundation Economist Scott Drenkard.

Our study addresses the fact that 38 states allow local governments to levy sales taxes within their jurisdiction. These local rates, when combined with the statewide rates, can result in substantially larger tax bites.

“Of course, sales taxes are just one part of an overall tax structure and should be considered in context,” adds Drenkard. “For example, Washington State has high sales taxes but no income tax; Oregon has no sales tax but high income taxes. While many factors influence business location and investment decisions, sales taxes are something within policymakers’ control that can have immediate impacts.”

Full report: State and Local Sales Tax Rates in 2015

Kansas school budget cuts and schedules

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Media is snowblind to school “budget cuts” and scheduling realities

By David Dorsey

Contestant: “Alex, I’ll take ‘Media Bias’ for 200.”

Alex: “It’s what the news media calls a ‘snow day’ in Kansas.”

Contestant: “What is a budget cut?”

Alex: “Correct!”

Although to my knowledge that answer/question combination has never been on Jeopardy!, it certainly would be appropriate the way the media continues to misrepresent the state of education funding in the Sunflower State.

An article in Education Week and this similar one in the Huffington Post, both of which were published April 3, used sensationalized headlines and irresponsible reporting to contrive a false financial crisis for the state’s public schools. Both headlines, the Huffington Posts “Kansas Schools Will Close Early This Spring For Lack Of Funds” and Education Week’s “Funding Cuts Force Kansas Districts to End School Year Early,” even make it appear that all 286 school districts will be starting summer vacation early this year. The reality is that there are only two: Concordia (USD 333) and Twin Valley (USD 240) and the headlines are false.  It’s not a disastrous a financial picture that is precipitating a shorter school year, the districts are merely forgoing some unused snow days.

The Education Week piece cited this Salina Journal article to support their assertion that it is Governor Brownback’s late year funding cuts and the new block grant funding law (which restored those cuts) that have precipitated the early dismissal. But regardless of the misleading headline, the Salina Journal story gives a much different picture of the real reasons those districts chose to end their schools years ahead of the original schedule.

Concordia has chosen to cut six days from the current school calendar. Their buildings will close four days early and there will be no school two other days. However, contrary to the article’s premise, the Salina Journal piece did not quote Concordia Superintendent Bev Mortimer as using budget constraints as a reason, although both Education Week and the Huffington Post chose to make that inference in relying heavily from that article. Specifically, Superintendent Mortimer cited one reason for the decision is to provide a perk to the teachers. “We haven’t been able to give raises to teachers like we like. One thing we could give them is some time…It was one positive thing we could do for our staff.” And they are able to give teachers that time by cashing in their unused snow days. “We would have done some of these [snow]days anyway,” the superintendent said. “We might not have chosen to do all six of them.”

Mortimer did state, however, that the decision would save USD 333 about $30,000. To put that dollar figure in perspective, the district’s total budget for the current school year is in excess of $18 million, putting the savings at 0.2%. Furthermore, Concordia’s cash reserves at the beginning of the last two schools years have exceeded $800,000.

So much for a financial crisis.

Twin Valley’s situation is not unlike that of Concordia. That district decided to forgo 7.5 “discretionary days” as they call them and end the year on May 8 instead of May 20. As an example of sensationalistic reporting, Huffington Post implies the students are missing 12 days of schools. (Maybe they think kids in Kansas go to school on the weekends?)

“Discretionary days?” Sounds like more unused snow days schools build into their calendar. Although the Salina Journal quoted Twin Valley Superintendent Jan Neufeld as saying, “Twin Valley’s ‘financial status’ was among the reasons” for the decision, she “declined to guess how much the district would save” by ending the school year earlier. Again, it sounds like much more than just financial considerations. How can you blame a funding cut for ending the school early if you don’t know how much money it will save? Twin Valley also had healthy cash reserves in excess of half a million dollars each of the last two years.

These financial conditions provide a reality that is a far cry from Education Week’s claim that “education funding cuts are forcing two Kansas districts to end the school year early.” What the media outlets failed to report is that both districts will still meet state law requirements for the number of days or hours students will be in school for the year.

Also, the media has been spewing misinformation that the new block grant funding approach will result in a cut of dollars to education. As the table below shows, both districts are receiving increases this school year, not decreases. Concordia will get nearly $200,000 more than 2013-14 and Twin Valley will receive over $170,000 more. The impact statewide is similar. Record state aid to education will continue under the block grants to the tune of 5.6% additional money allocated to schools over a three year period.


So, is there any evidence that schools in Kansas are teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff?

As Alex Trebek would say: “No, sorry.”

Clinton campaign announcement and need for school choice

From The American Federation for Children.

Kevin P. Chavous reacts to Clinton campaign announcement and need for school choice
Washington, D.C. (April 13, 2015) – The American Federation for Children, the nation’s voice for educational choice, issued the following statement on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy announcement from AFC executive counsel, Kevin P. Chavous:
“Yesterday when Hillary Clinton announced her Presidential candidacy in a video, I was saddened by one of the families that was featured in her uplifting announcement. At the :17 second mark of the video, a mother is featured discussing how her family is moving so her child can attend a quality school. Featuring this family in her candidacy announcement highlights the problems with education in our country and the urgency to ensure that every family, regardless of their zip code, can choose a quality school.
“If Hillary supported school choice, the family in the video and other families across the country would not need to uproot their lives to ensure their child receives a great education. They would immediately have access to quality options and the opportunity to achieve their academic goals.
“As a fellow Democrat I challenge Hillary Clinton to embrace educational choice, to become a champion for every day Americans who are less fortunate and lack the resources to uproot their family and move. Because, in the America I believe in, no family should face the decision to have to move in order to give their child the opportunities afforded by a quality education.”
Kevin P. Chavous is executive counsel and a founding board member for the American Federation for Children. He is a former member of the Council of the District of Columbia and a former chairman of D.C.’s Education Committee. Chavous was responsible for enacting numerous education reforms in D.C. Chavous is chair emeritus of the Democrats for Education Reform and a former chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options.


Quick Takes from Voice for Liberty: Individual liberty, limited government, economic freedom, and free markets in Wichita and Kansas.