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Eagle editorial: Skeptical of school task force

  • Published Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, at 12 a.m.

There is cause to be skeptical about Gov. Sam Brownback’s new school efficiency task force.

After all, the task force is supposed to “examine education spending and to develop guidelines on how to get more funding into classrooms,” yet not a single member of the 10-member group works in education.

And the governor’s press release last week announcing the task force wrongly claimed that state law “requires at least 65 percent of funds provided by the state to school districts … be spent in the classroom or for instruction.” It’s only a policy guideline – and a misguided one at that.

Also, the state is in the middle of a lawsuit about whether it is suitably funding education, and some lawmakers use claims of inefficiency as an excuse to not increase funding.

“We need more money in the classroom and less in administration and overhead costs,” Brownback echoed in the press release.

Still, if the task force can find realistic ways to reduce costs without harming educational outcomes, terrific. All good ideas should be welcome.

And if it determines that schools are actually operating efficiently, especially given all the regulations and demands they face, that’s one less excuse for lawmakers.

One caution for the task force is that the 65 percent spending target is arbitrary and ambiguous. There is no research showing a relationship between the 65 percent threshold and improved student outcomes. Also, librarians, school nurses, counselors and social workers aren’t counted as instructional costs, yet they have a direct influence on the success of students. Budget percentages also can vary significantly between districts based on transportation costs, number of buildings, age of buildings, and number of low-income, bilingual or special-education students.

In other words, one size or simplistic measure doesn’t fit all.

Another challenge is that the efficiency of Kansas schools has been studied several times by professional auditors, without finding much to change. And the most obvious way to significantly reduce administrative costs – consolidating school districts – is fiercely opposed by many communities and lawmakers, including conservative Republicans.

That said, districts have experienced nearly $500 million in state funding cuts in recent years. As a result, they have had to rethink their operations.

Wichita has closed schools, dropped programs and laid off staff. Wichita superintendent John Allison also has a group of local business leaders who are helping look for ways for the district to be more efficient.

If the task force can come up with other viable ideas for lowering costs without lowering quality, more power to it.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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