August 26, 2014

Brownback budget director mixes up education spending numbers in Twitter debate

Shawn Sullivan said he intended to show that per-pupil spending has gone up under Gov. Sam Brownback. But he ended up doing the opposite in a series of tweets.

The governor’s budget director mixed up dollar figures for per-pupil spending on education on Twitter on Monday, accidentally adding fuel to his opponent’s assertion that state spending on education has gone down.

Since taking over as budget director in June, Shawn Sullivan has frequently taken to social media to spar with the governor’s critics. On Monday, he got into a debate on Twitter about school finance with Marcus Baltzell, the Kansas National Education Association’s communication director, and the Douglas County Democrats.

Sullivan meant to show that per-pupil spending on education has gone up even if local dollars and spending on pensions are removed. However, he ended up doing just the opposite in a series of tweets.

“Total spending per pupil - $8,711 in FY09 and $8,097 in FY15 (not including local funds),” Sullivan tweeted. “Take out KPERS from total spending and it was $7,847 in FY09 and $7,559 in FY15 per kid (without local $).”

Asked about the tweets Tuesday morning, Sullivan said he realized that he had reversed the numbers. He meant to show the fiscal year 2015 numbers were higher than fiscal year 2009.

He noted that once his mistake is corrected, the figures support the governor’s argument that spending has gone up.

Combined state and federal aid per student is $8,711 for fiscal year 2015, Sullivan said, explaining, “I twisted that in my tweet.”

He reached that number – which excludes local aid to schools – by taking the combined total of state and federal aid and dividing it by the number of students.

There are an estimated 460,846 students for the 2014-15 school year and about $4 billion in federal and state aid. There were 450,014 students in 2008-09 and about $3.6 billion in combined federal and state aid. So there has been a $614 increase if numbers are not adjusted for inflation.

Sullivan also calculates that even if money for KPERS and capital improvements are removed, then the dollar figure per student still rises to $7,847 compared with $7,559.

Education spending has been a central issue in the race between Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and Paul Davis, a Democrat.

The Davis campaign has typically pointed to base state aid per pupil, which has dropped $548 since 2009, when it peaked during a period that covers both the Brownback administration and that of Gov. Mark Parkinson. This number reflects the base number plugged into the complex school finance formula and leaves out other funding sources.

“The reason we use the metrics that we use is that’s how it has been done for years and years,” said Chris Pumpelly, spokesman for the Davis campaign. He called this figure the most honest representation of classroom dollars.

Brownback’s campaign has mainly pointed to total spending, which includes federal aid and contributions to the pension fund.

“There’s so many different numbers that are used,” Sullivan said. “I take out the local because the governor and the legislators, and I as a policy person, do not have control over the local spending.”

However, if federal aid and targeted state grants are removed, and one considers only money from the state general fund and divides it by the number of students, there has been an $86 drop since 2009.

More than $3.1 billion was spent from the state general fund on schools in 2009, or $6,992 per pupil. Almost $3.2 billion will be spent this year, but because of the higher number of students, that results in $6,906 per pupil. These numbers are not adjusted for inflation and include the state money spent on pensions.

Sullivan said in an e-mail that he considers the state general fund a poor measurement because it excludes some state funding sources.

Pumpelly said the Brownback administration is using numbers that include federal dollars as a way to obscure the state’s commitment to education.

“The numbers are always so squishy to suit whatever they want people to believe, and it’s really a troubling thing to look at,” Pumpelly said. “Governor Brownback and his administration have consistently tried to shift the goalposts and make it appear that things aren’t nearly as bad as this experiment has made them.”

Sullivan sent a follow-up e-mail saying that if both federal aid and pension spending are removed, then the state is spending $6,780 per pupil, which is a $76 increase from 2009 levels.

Mark Tallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, has said that total education funding has been flat since Brownback took office in 2011 if the numbers are adjusted for inflation.

“Even when you add everything ... if you would adjust for inflation, you would say the additional money has just kept us flat and we have still not kind of recovered to where we were at pre-recession,” Tallman said.

“Where the governor has added money, we want to give credit for that. Where we’re still falling short, we want to make sure that’s clear,” Tallman said.

To see state and federal spending on elementary and secondary education, visit http://tinyurl.com/l7g3r7p.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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