How much does it cost to educate one student?

05/09/2011 2:04 PM

05/09/2011 2:04 PM

How much money does the state spend to educate one Kansas student each year?

It's hard to blame Kansas taxpayers for being confused about how much money is spent on and by public schools. Different organizations give different answers.

In a recent survey by the Kansas Policy Institute, only about 6 percent of people answered correctly that the state spends a total of more than $6,000 per K-12 student.

"Most school districts only talk about base state aid per pupil," which is $4,012 and not the only source of state funding, said Dave Trabert, president of the nonprofit policy group, which promotes keeping taxes low.

Schools cite the base aid number because it's the piece of state funding that can be used for any and all students, said Linda Jones, chief financial officer at the Wichita school district.

The Legislature will be back in session Wednesday discussing options on how to fill a $510 million budget shortfall. With K-12 education making up more than half of the state's budget, school finance will be heavily debated.

Total dollars

The first step in understanding per-student numbers is to understand where the total education budget comes from.

The state has cut school funding about $170 million — or about a 5.3 percent — since January 2009. But schools still receive more money than they did five years ago, according to the Legislative Research Department.

Today, schools statewide receive 29.5 percent more — from state, local and federal sources — than in 2005, according to the research.

State funding makes up the majority of schools' budgets, but they also receive revenue from local property taxes and federal grants.

Most of the 29.5 percent increase in school funding came after 2006, when the state agreed to pay more money to schools after the schools won a lawsuit they had filed against the Legislature.

The state boosted spending in several ways, including raising base state aid per student, supplementing local property taxes in districts with low property values, and matching money for capital and bond funds.

Base state aid

Base state aid per student is the number school districts refer to most.

It has nothing to do with the total money the district spends, but it is the largest amount of money schools receive from the state. It's a set amount per student doled out to districts based on the number of full-time students.

The current base state aid per-student funding is $4,012, down 8.8 percent from when the Legislature started making cuts in January 2009.

Schools estimated the per-student funding will drop to $3,726 next year, which is $6 more than in the 1998-1999 school year.

That's why districts say they could face cuts that bring funding to "1999 levels" if legislators choose budget reductions rather than raise revenue.

Per-student base aid is important because it is the money that can go to the education of a regular education student, Wichita CFO Jones said.

She said much of the increase in state funding in the past five years was in areas specifically marked for construction or helping certain students, such as bilingual or special education.

"It's helping us to educate high-need students, and it's made a difference," Jones said. "All those additional dollars didn't do anything for students (who aren't high-need)."

Some areas of extra state funding, such as supplementing money the district raises for maintenance and construction, have already been discontinued.

State aid per student

Although the base aid is the principal way the state distributes money to districts, it's not the only way.

The per-student base aid number doesn't give voters the whole story, said Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center.

If total state aid is divided by the number of students statewide, Kansas spends an estimated $6,292 per student, according to numbers from the Kansas State Department of Education.

In 2005, the state spent $5,346 per student, and in 1999, that number was $4,704.

After hearing concerns from constituents about school funding, Huebert said he requested a report that calculated state contributions over the past 15 years from the Legislative Research Department, which is a non-partisan research resource for legislators.

"There's enough spin — from politicians and school people," he said.

The legislators plan on restoring cuts once the economy turns around, Huebert said. But he said schools shouldn't act like "the sky is falling."

"Most of the (increased) money got put into hiring," Huebert said. "That's not a bad thing.

"More money in itself doesn't correlate with test scores."

State test scores have risen since 2005, but other tests scores — such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress — have remained relatively flat in Kansas and nationwide.

Enrollment statewide has remained steady, with an increase of about 1 percent from 2005 to 2009.

Total per-student aid

Another way to derive cost per student is to take all funding to Kansas schools — about $5.5 billion in state, local and federal aid — and divide it by the total number of students.

This year's estimated total per-student cost is $12,225, which is about 26 percent above what schools had to spend in 2005, according to the Kansas State Department of Education.

Using the 26 percent funding increase figure, the Kansas Policy Institute's survey found voters were less willing to pay higher taxes than they would be had school money remained flat or decreased.

The survey asked 600 voters statewide about their perceptions of school funding.

"For the most part, folks are not aware of school funding (amounts)," said Bob Ross of The Research Partnership, the company that conducted the survey. "When the information is provided, they have a different view."

The $12,225 figure can be misleading because it includes money restricted to building maintenance and construction, which isn't available to schools to educate students, said Jones, the Wichita schools CFO.

Restricted funds

In explaining the impact of budget cuts, school officials say reductions would have to come from the "unrestricted" portion of their budgets, which is funded by state and local taxes.

In Wichita, these funds, which can be spent in any way, make up about 40 percent of the budget.

The other 60 percent comes from "restricted" funds, over which school leaders say they have little discretion in cutting, such as special education and food services.

But the Wichita district will cut some types of restricted funds in cutting its budget for next school year, Jones said.

One of the most flexible of these restricted funds is the money the district receives from the state to help educate at-risk students.

The parameters have allowed the district to help at-risk students in several ways, including lowering class sizes by hiring teachers and expanding kindergarten to all-day.

Metro Midtown Alternative High School, like the other two alternative high schools in Wichita, receives money from the at-risk fund. Closing Metro Midtown, as the district has proposed, would save about $1 million in designated restricted funds.

By reducing costs there and still providing similar services to students at other alternative high schools, Jones said the district will have to cut less from the unrestricted funds that educate a broader range of students.

She said the district is also looking at ways to use some of the restricted funds to help pay for programs — currently paid for partly with unrestricted funds — that also qualify for restricted funds. This would mean fewer unrestricted dollars would need to be cut.

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