Kansas school reform

A Wichita economist and attorney offers advice to a committee of the Kansas Legislature on reforming Kansas schools for student achievement. From December 2015.

This week saw the third meeting of the 2015 Special Committee on K-12 Student Success for the Kansas Legislature. Of special interest was the short testimony of Robert Litan, a Wichita economist and attorney. His testimony summarized some of the important problems with Kansas public schools and points to ways that Kansas can move forward in providing education to schoolchildren. His written testimony may be viewed here.

In arguing for starting with a “clean sheet” instead of merely tweaking the current formula, Litan wrote: “The reason is quite simple. Despite continued increases in real spending per pupil in the state, educational outcomes in Kansas are not improving nor are the gaps between the performance of students from low-income families and all other students.”

He also touches on several ways that Kansas schools could improve efficiency in their operations without consolidating school districts. The savings could be several hundred million dollars per year, a significant sum in Kansas.

Kansas needs to improve the performance of schools, focusing particularly on closing the achievement gap between students from low-income families and others, said Litan. A possible problem, he writes, is that the additional money allocated for “at-risk” students may not be spent in ways specifically targeted to those students. A problem is lack of tracking systems to see how this money is spent. (The at-risk weighting is substantial. For its first few years, starting in 1992, the weighting added five percent to state funding for each student classified as “at-risk.” It rose over the years, reaching 45.6 percent in 2008.)

Litan also touches on the importance of having good teachers and the controversies surrounding how to evaluate teachers. But it is important to reward good teachers, he writes.

Cost savings might also be used to reward school districts that provide more student attendance time: “Other things being equal, more schooling time should enhance student performance.” Of note, this year’s agreement with the teachers union for the Wichita school district reduces the school year by two days.

Finally, the importance of school choice, which is nearly non-existent in Kansas. A new funding formula needs to allow for school choice:

Finally, there are limits to how much any change in the way funding for schools is allocated among districts can affect student performance. That is because today parents’ and students’ ability to choose their public education provider is very limited, or non-existent.

That is not true in some other states, where parents and their children have more choices, as they do in other spheres of life for other goods and services. While broader choice is not directly on the table of today’s hearing, hopefully any changes this Committee and the Legislature may make in funding will not penalize any new schools that may be formed in the wake of any possible future change in Kansas law governing charter schools.