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Kansas school spending: Who knew?

When asked about the level of spending on public schools in Kansas, citizens are generally uninformed or misinformed. They also incorrectly thought that spending has declined in recent years.

These are some of the findings of a survey commissioned by Kansas Policy Institute and conducted by SurveyUSA, a national opinion research firm.

In a press release, KPI president Dave Trabert said “As Kansans consider how to deal with the potential fallout from another school lawsuit, pressure to expand Medicaid, ballooning pension deficits and concerns about rising property taxes, we wanted to check again to see how perceptions of the facts influences opinions. Good information is essential to informed opinions and it is clear that when given the facts, Kansans offer much different responses than what is typically reported from overly-simplistic public surveys.”

Here’s the first question of the survey, asking about Kansas state spending on schools: “How much state funding do you think Kansas school districts currently receive per pupil each year from JUST the state of Kansas? Less than $4,000 per pupil? Between $4,000 and $5,000? Between $5,000 and $6,000? Or more than $6,000 per pupil?”

The correct answer is the last category, according to Kansas State Department of Education. State spending on Kansas schools, on a per-pupil basis, is $6,984 for the most recent school year. That’s total state-funded spending of $3,184,163,559 divided by 456,000.50 full time equivalent students. 13 percent of survey respondents chose the correct category. 44 percent thought the correct answer was less than $4,000.

To get a reading about respondents’ level of knowledge regarding total school spending, the survey asked “How much funding per pupil do you think Kansas school districts currently receive from ALL taxpayer sources per year, including State, Federal and Local taxpayers? Less than $6,000 per pupil? Between $6,000 and $9,000? Between $9,000 and $12,000? Or more than $12,000 per pupil?”

According to KSDE, the spending per pupil from all sources of funding is $12,656. On the survey, seven percent chose the correct category. 39 percent thought the answer was less than $6,000, which is less than half the actual spending.

What the trend in school spending? The survey asked: “Over the last 5 years, do you think per-pupil school district funding from the State, Federal Government and local property taxes has gone down by more than 10%? Has remained about the same? Has gone up by less than 5%? Or has gone up by about 10%?”

Here are the figures: For 2011-2012, spending per pupil was $12,656. Five years ago, the 2006-2007 school year, spending was $11,558. That’s 9.5 percent. Only 15 percent chose the correct answer, “up by about 10%.” Fully 61 percent thought spending had declined.

The level of knowledge revealed in this survey is not a surprise. In 2010 KPI commissioned a survey that asked similar questions, with similar results.

A national survey, Is the Price Right? Probing American’s knowledge of school spending, a 2007 project produced by EducationNext, a project of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, produced similar results:

How well informed is the public about these financial commitments? Not very. Among those asked without the prompt listing possible expenses, the median response was $2,000, or less than 20 percent of the true amount being spent in their districts. Over 90 percent of the public offered an amount less than the amount actually spent in their district, and more than 40 percent of the sample claimed that annual spending was $1,000 per pupil or less. The average estimate of $4,231 reflects the influence of a small percentage of individuals who offered extremely high figures. Even so, the average respondent’s estimate was just 42 percent of actual spending levels in their district.

Why the low level of correct information?

Given that citizens have a consistent record of underestimating the amount spend on schools, we might ask why. There are several answers.

First, school officials lie to the public. That’s unfortunate, but there’s no other way to characterize comparisons between their statements and the facts.

In July, a Wichita Eagle news story quoted John Allison, superintendent of USD 259, the Wichita public school district thusly: “We’re still at 2001 funding levels. If only our costs were at 2001.”

In March, Wichita school board member Connie Dietz wrote in an Eagle op-ed: “But what neither I nor any of my fellow board members planned on was building a fiscal year 2012 budget based on 1999 funding levels.”

Looking at the facts, these claims are demonstrably false. Considering Allison’s claim specifically: From the 2001-2002 school year to the 2011-2012 year, spending per pupil from state sources increased from $4,812 to $7,501, an increase of 55.8 percent. Spending per pupil from all sources grew from $8,393 to $12,734, an increase of 51.7 percent.

During the same time, the Consumer Price Index, the primary measure of inflation, rose about 27 percent, about half the rate that Wichita school spending increased.

I don’t know why these school leaders makes these claims that are so divergent from the facts. I do know, however, that our opinion leaders aren’t doing any better. A Lawrence Journal-World editorial that was repeated in the Wichita Eagle made several claims about Kansas schools that don’t hold up under scrutiny. The <em<Journal-World editorial made this claim: “In the last four years, per-pupil state funding for public schools has declined by about 14 percent, from $4,400 per student to $3,780. Districts have cut the fat in their budgets and then some. It’s time to correct this dangerous trend.”

This statement about “base state aid per pupil” is true. But using only that figure to describe spending on schools in Kansas is disingenuous. It hides facts that are contrary.

School spending advocates present base state aid per pupil as the primary benchmark or indicator of school spending, despite the fact that it is only part of the Kansas school spending formula and disguises the overall level of spending.

Specifically, base state aid per pupil for the last school year was $3,780. But the state spent an average of $6,983 per pupil that year, which is an additional $3,203 or 84.7 percent more than base state aid. Overall spending from all sources was $12,656 per pupil. Both of the latter numbers are higher than the previous year.

As can be seen in the chart, base state aid has declined, but total state spending has increased.

Why do school spending supporters focus only on base state aid? Its decline provides the grain of truth for their larger and false argument about school spending. As explained in Kansas school spending: the deception this grain of truth enables school spending advocates like Mark Desetti (Director of Legislative and Political Advocacy at Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union) to be accurate and deceptive, all at the same time.

Finally, people want schools and students to succeed. Our future depends on it. A good education is a valuable investment. So there’s a built-in bias in favor of schools, and school spending advocates use this to their advantage. Anyone who simply brings attention to the facts — not to mention criticism — is blasted as “anti-education” or “anti-child.”

People are shocked when they learn the level of spending by schools. When they — either through their own observations or measures of student achievement — compare that spending to the product produced by public schools, citizens become truly alarmed — and they should be.

Base state aid compared to Kansas state spending and total spending. State and total spending has risen even though base state aid is mostly flat.

Bob Weeks

Bob Weeks is a blogger for liberty and economic freedom in Kansas: http://wichitaliberty.org. Find him onTwitter: @bob_weeks

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Categories: Budget and Finance, Education, Policy
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