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Figures guide spending decisions Governor’s numbers come under question

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, at 11 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, at 9:26 p.m.

In recent months, Gov. Sam Brownback has blamed his predecessor for a $2 billion spending hike that never happened and taken credit for spending cuts he didn’t actually make.

Brownback has also touted — and lamented — a statistic that only 54 percent of the money spent on education in Kansas actually finds its way into the classroom, a figure at odds with the 61.9 percent that Kansas reports to the federal government.

Those inaccuracies and some other technically accurate – but potentially misleading – numbers are contained in a PowerPoint presentation that Brownback has delivered for months to opinion leaders throughout the state, including a recent presentation at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Brownback’s numbers matter because they’re being used by his administration and the Legislature to guide and justify state spending policy decisions, especially in education. The governor has used his presentation to drum up public support for plans to cut income taxes and to resist a recent court decision that found the state isn’t meeting its constitutional mandate to provide adequate funding for schools.

Numbers showing reduced spending in the last two years came from Brownback’s Budget Division, but they don’t match what’s reported in the state budget book. Last week, Elaine Frisbie, deputy director of the division, confirmed that Brownback’s chart was incorrect.

“(I) believe the issue is an erroneous number I had previously given Sherriene (Jones-Sontag) in the governor’s office out of a separate spreadsheet,” she said in an e-mail.

Brownback cited the 54 percent classroom spending figure in his State of the State speech that kicked off the annual legislative session last month.

State law calls for 65 percent of education funding to go to classrooms. And while Brownback said he got the 54 percent statistic from the Kansas Department of Education, officials there said they didn’t give it to him and they don’t know where he got it.

$2 billion off

One of the main charts in Brownback’s standard speech shows an increase in overall state spending every year from 1965 until 2011, when Brownback took office and oversaw spending in the second half of the fiscal year.

In his presentation, Brownback credited his administration with bringing spending down.

“Here’s something we’ve done, this all-state-funds spending, you can kind of see this first bending down of the cost curve in 40 years for the state,” Brownback told the Wichita Chamber in December.

He repeated that in a Jan. 25 meeting with editors and reporters at The Eagle, saying: “We’ve bent this total spending number down and much of that has been, ‘How can we run this differently?’ ”

While no actual figures were attached to Brownback’s chart, it showed state spending peaking at about $16 billion in 2010, the last year of the administration of Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson. The actual spending was $14.04 billion that year.

Take away that nearly $2 billion error in 2010 and “that chart tells a different story,” said Duane Goossen, the former state budget director who now works as vice president of fiscal and health policy for the Kansas Health Institute.

The most glaring difference is that it shows the state has spent more under Brownback’s administration than it did under Parkinson’s, not the other way around, he said.

In addition, he said, a 2012 dip in all-funds spending had more to do with expiration of federal funding that had been coming to the state under the stimulus act passed by Congress and President Obama to help states through the multi-year recession that began in late 2008.

From 2010 to 2011, federal money to Kansas dropped by about $60 million, from $4.53 billion to $4.47 billion. It dropped about another $320 million in 2012, to $4.15 billion.

During that same period, spending from the state general fund – the core of the budget driven by state taxes and controlled by the governor and Legislature – rose from $5.2 billion in 2010 to $5.6 billion in 2011, and to $6 billion in 2012.

What to count?

In his presentation and his State of the State speech, Brownback was critical of how schools spend money.

“Fiscal discipline has seemingly become a lost art in government,” he said in the speech, which was attended by both houses of the Legislature and broadcast statewide on television and radio. “Our schools only get 54 cents of every valuable education dollar into the classroom. This at a time when we put more state money into K-12 per capita than any surrounding state and when total spending averages more than $12,600 per student per year.”

Brownback expanded on those themes in his meeting with Eagle editors and reporters.

“This chart bothers me … that we only get 54 percent of the money into the classroom,” Brownback said. “By statute it’s supposed to be 65 percent. We’re getting 54.”

Brownback said people want a larger share spent on classroom teaching and less on support functions: “In military terminology, they want more teeth and less tail.”

While the federal government decided what to count as teeth and tail almost 50 years ago, Kansas is still fighting that battle.

Each year, every school district in America is required to report its annual spending to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Census Bureau. The reports use consistent definitions of school spending categories across the country, so that the information can be used to compare district to district, state to state and year to year.

By that report, Kansas spends 61.9 percent of its operating funds in the classroom, not the 54 percent the governor cited.

In the most recent nationwide Census report available, covering 2010 expenditures, Kansas ranked 12th in the nation for the share of current education spending that goes to classroom instruction.

But there’s a bitter and long-running dispute in Kansas over what should be counted as annual spending and instructional spending.

Advocates for smaller government say that annual school spending should include bond debt payments and capital improvement funds used for long-term school building projects, money the federal government excludes from the calculation of current spending.

School districts argue that student support services — the librarians, psychologists, speech therapists and others who work directly with students — should count toward classroom instruction spending, which the federal government does not allow.

A 2011 Kansas law requires the Education Department to calculate and report per-student spending including the capital and bond funds and report it on the department’s website.

That’s the genesis of Brownback’s statement that school spending averages more than $12,600 per student a year.

The state’s report to the Census, also on the Education Department website, shows per-pupil spending at $10,396 for 2012.

Brownback acknowledged the dispute over counting in his meeting at The Eagle.

“People then start off the discussion with, well, what are you counting in, what are you counting out?” Brownback said. “And I’m open to however you, if you want to recalculate it. This (54 percent of spending going to instruction) is the Kansas State Department of Education number. You want to count it different, let’s have a discussion. I’m going off the Kansas State Department of Education number.”

But the Department of Education says it’s not their number.

Department spokeswoman Kathy Toelkes said she couldn’t find anyone there who had communicated with the governor’s staff about that. She said they may have taken some numbers off the department website and done their own calculation.

Brownback and members of his staff said they would provide a detailed explanation of the governor’s numbers, but did not do so despite repeated requests over a three-week period.

Reform group vanished

The standard of spending 65 percent of education funding on instruction was the brainchild of a group called First Class Education, which billed itself as an education finance advocacy group and its “65 Percent Solution” as a much-needed reform.

The chairman of the group was Overstock.com chief executive Patrick Byrne, who provided the startup money. The group and its goals were promoted nationally by respected conservative columnist George Will.

The idea was simple and popular and quickly adopted by the Kansas Legislature, despite a Standard and Poor’s analysis that found no correlation between percentage of classroom spending and student achievement.

Only a handful of states adopted the 65 Percent Solution and in the seven years since Kansas did, First Class Education has disappeared from the American educational-political landscape.

The group’s onetime website has been shut down and is now a generic page promoting online college degrees.

The group’s tax-exempt status was revoked by the IRS after it failed to file any tax forms for three years in a row, according to records obtained from Guidestar, a national clearinghouse for information on nonprofit groups.

And on Jan. 16, Byrne was arrested at Salt Lake City International Airport after baggage screeners found a loaded Glock .40-caliber handgun in his carry-on bag. According to a police report, Byrne said he had forgotten the gun was packed in the bag and was booked for investigation of a misdemeanor.

Kansas state Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the 65 Percent Solution has become more of an embarrassment to the state than a reform.

“It’s amazing what gets listened to here (at the Statehouse) and that a group like that can end up getting legislation passed,” he said, shaking his head.

The 65 Percent Solution has its supporters in the Legislature, including Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, who serves on the House Education Committee.

“Even knowing that information (about First Class Education), I think it’s a good goal as far as getting more money into the classroom,” he said. “The more we can get into the classroom, the better. I don’t know anybody who disagrees with that.”

It’s not just the outnumbered state Democrats who are questioning the 65 Percent Solution.

Kansas Board of Education member Ken Willard, a Republican tapped by Brownback to head his task force on school finance, said the group generally supports putting money into the classroom instead of overhead. But “there was general agreement that the 65 percent number is not all that helpful,” he said.

“I’m not faulting the governor using that as a justification for establishing the task force. But you know, I’ve had this discussion with him personally and so it’s clear that I think and even in his mind that that number is not scientifically derived. But it is out there. It’s in statute as a goal.”

He said it creates “kind of an uneven playing field” for schools.

Transportation costs, enrollment growth and even the ages of a district’s teachers can all make it hard to meet 65 percent, he said.

He said one of the task force’s recommendations is to form another committee to decide exactly what to count if 65 percent is to remain the goal.

According to an Internet Archive search of its former web pages, First Class Education proposed using the spending definitions from federal law, which would support the Education Department’s finding that 61.9 percent of school spending goes to the classroom — not the governor’s 54 percent.

State or local?

Brownback’s State of the State assertion that “we put more state money into K-12 per capita than any surrounding state” has also come into question.

Brownback backs that up with one of the charts in his PowerPoint, showing K-12 state aid per pupil in Kansas is slightly more than $6,000, substantially higher than in Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska or Oklahoma.

The chart is accurate but could paint a misleading picture of school spending relative to the other states because it doesn’t take into account that they use different tax plans to fund their schools.

Kansas relies more on state aid, primarily from statewide income and sales taxes, to fund its schools. The neighboring states get more of their school money from what the government calls “local revenue,” which comes primarily from property taxes levied within school districts.

So while Kansas leads the group in state aid, it’s the second lowest on the list for local revenue.

Overall, Kansans pay about 6 percent less in school taxes than Nebraskans and 4 percent more than Coloradans. Missouri and Oklahoma school taxes are substantially less than in the other three states.

Sawyer, who was House majority leader in 1992 when the decision was made to shift funding from local property taxes to the statewide tax base, said it was done on purpose and for good reason.

Back then, wealthy cities with high tax bases could afford excellent schools, while poor cities and rural towns struggled to pay for educational basics, he said.

“If you were born into a poor school district, you wouldn’t ever have the opportunity to go to a good school,” Sawyer said. “Local property taxes got very high and they didn’t have anything left to tax.”

He said he’s concerned that lawmakers now may try to shift the funding burden back to property taxes.

“I’m afraid we’re going back down that path,” said Sawyer. “It’s all new people now. They don’t know we’ve been through that.”

Contributing: Brent D. Wistrom of The Eagle

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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