Take a look at the Kansas budget and one item looms large, eating up more state spending than anything else.
Schools swallow about $4.5 billion. That spending rose after an infusion of cash by lawmakers earlier this year in response to a court ruling in a long-running fight over whether state government does enough to support public education.
The leading candidates for governor offer various notions about how best to build strong schools in the state — how much to spend and where best to put those tax dollars.
Laura Kelly, the state senator and Democratic nominee, says there’s little getting around a need to spend more.
Kris Kobach, the Republican candidate and secretary of state, contends the state could spend money better if districts would just trim their administrative fat.
Greg Orman, a Kansas City-area businessman and independent candidate, thinks he can fix schools by revving up the state’s economy.
“They’re very different in how they talk about the issue,” University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said in an interview. “There’s at least one very stark division, and that’s between Kobach and the alternatives.”
Cash is king
Kelly said during a debate in September that strong schools drew her family to Kansas. Yet she says schools suffered and didn’t see enough investment after the 2012 tax cuts pushed by then-Gov. Sam Brownback.
“I want to make sure that every child, no matter who they are or where they live, has the same opportunities to succeed that my daughters did,” Kelly said.
Some estimates show Kansas might be facing tight finances again in the coming years, but Kelly said reversing the tax cuts means Kansas can afford to spend on schools and invest in early childhood programs.
Bruce Baker is a professor in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy and Administration at Rutgers University and has been involved in the Kansas lawsuits over school funding. He agrees with Kelly that tax cuts hurt.
“Because of those tax cuts,” he said, “Kansas school funding took a bigger hit than many, if not most, other states.”
Yet Kansas schools were performing relatively well compared to other states, so Baker said the state didn’t suffer as much as some other states might have in the same situation.
“But if they want to be better than that, if you want to shoot for even more,” he said, “on average, it’s going to cost more.”
Eric Hanushek analyzes education issues as a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and he has also been involved in Kansas school spending lawsuits. After studying the data, he reaches a different conclusion.
“How you spend money is more important than how much you spend in almost every instance,” Hanushek said in an interview, “because Kansas is already spending a lot of money.”
Baker suggests spending at struggling districts. Hanushek urges focusing more on teacher quality.
Spending money on early childhood programs can offer benefits if it’s targeted at kids who need it most, Hanushek said.
“Disadvantaged kids could be helped by having earlier childhood education,” he said.
Kobach focuses on how, not how much
Kobach wants to focus on how money is spent. He has criticized what he calls “Taj Mahal” buildings in school districts and bloated administration.
At the raucous Kansas State Fair debate, Kobach said state officials should stop looking at the bottom line — how much money is spent — and focus on where it’s going.
“We have got to stop spending so much money on administration and spend it instead in the classroom, on the teachers’ salaries, on the computers and on the books,” Kobach said. “That is where the money belongs.”
Kobach is not advocating for districts to consolidate, but he wants districts to merge administrative functions. That’s an idea some conservative lawmakers and a right-leaning Kansas think tank have also pushed.
“We need to share administrative costs, have efficiencies, so the money stays in the classroom,” Kobach said.
He pegs classroom spending at 50 percent, and he wants it to be 75 percent of all education spending.
Schools that perform well should be rewarded for that financially, Kobach said, with raises for all teachers and staff.
Tom DeLuca, a former teacher and school administrator now teaching educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Kansas, said it all comes down to what you count.
“You have to look outside the four walls of a classroom,” he said. “Learning takes place, or learning is supported, at multiple levels and multiple places by multiple resources.”
Not counting things such as counselors, library staff and school psychologists leads to some measures putting Kansas classroom spending at around 53 or 60 percent of spending.
“That sounds quite shocking until you look at what that actually means,” said Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Add in those other services that help students, plus the costs of transporting students and feeding them, and Tallman calculates the total reaches up to 70 percent of spending. That’s before counting the cost of building and maintaining the classroom.
Tallman puts administrative costs at the school building and district level at under 10 percent of spending.
It’s the economy to Orman
Orman would focus on ways to juice up the state economy with good-paying jobs.
“The best education policy is a growing economy,” Orman said during a debate in Overland Park.
Growing state revenues will allow the state to invest in schools without a tax increase, he said.
Orman’s also touting an indirect benefit from economic growth. Parents will have more time to be parents, instead of working second jobs, with a healthy state economy.
“Create the jobs and opportunities to allow their parents to have the time to invest in their kids’ educations,” he said at the Kansas State Fair.
Studies have reliably shown that parental involvement does make a difference in student outcomes, said Rick Ginsberg, the dean of the School of Education at KU.
But barriers to parental involvement are complex and can include cultural or language differences that schools must overcome.
“It’s a lot of work for schools to do that, and I think our schools do work really hard on that,” Ginsberg said. “But that’s a never-ending process for schools.”
It’s not easy to quantify Orman’s belief that growing the economy growing will lead people to switch from working multiple jobs to a single job.
Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, said some people may assume fewer workers will have multiple jobs when the economy is growing, but that’s not the case.
“Conventional wisdom about what goes on in the economy,” Hill said, “is different from what the actual data shows.”
While the number of people working full-time does increase when the economy is growing, numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also show the number of people working multiple jobs increases.
There are more jobs to work during economic booms and employers may offer additional pay or other perks that entice people to pick up a second job, Hill said.
There’s also no button a governor can push to spur quick and lasting economic growth, said Ken Kriz, a professor of public administration at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
“If there was, then everybody would be doing it,” Kriz said in an interview. “Any type of magic bullet would immediately be recognized and mimicked by other states.”
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
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