Ken Willard, chairman of Gov. Sam Brownback’s school efficiency task force, said he would do his best to see that the task force is “not distracted by politics.” Good luck with that.
Politics were front and center at the task force’s first meeting last week, as a large poster was displayed showing that only 54 percent of education funding was going toward “instruction.” The same poster appeared the next day when Gov. Sam Brownback held a press conference to defend his record on education funding.
Brownback made getting more funding “into the classroom” the main priority of the task force, and he has complained that few Kansas school districts are spending 65 percent of their funding on instruction.
But the 65 percent goal is mostly a political number. There is no good research showing a relationship between the 65 percent threshold and improved student outcomes. Also, the percentage varies based on what funding is counted and what is included as “instruction.”
If only operational funds are counted, and not bond interest and debt, nearly 62 percent of state funding went to instruction in 2011, according to the Kansas State Department of Education. And if you include librarians, social workers, counselors, speech pathologists and others who may not be directly “in the classroom” but who certainly have an impact on the success of kids, the instructional spending is more than 70 percent.
Politics also seemed to influence Brownback’s initial selection of task force members. Though they are capable people, not a single one works in education. To his credit, Brownback appointed a school superintendent to the task force Wednesday. He also announced a new online form the public, teachers and administrators can use anonymously to submit “examples of inefficiencies that they have witnessed or experienced.”
The lineup at the task force’s meeting also raised eyebrows. Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute – a free-market organization – was given more time before the committee than Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, the state expert on school finance and administration.
Likely as a result, some of the suggestions for improving efficiency that were discussed were things that many school districts already have considered or are doing, such as using cooperative purchasing.
Brownback also injected more politics when he made clear last week that he didn’t want the task force to recommend merging school districts. Consolidation is one of the most obvious ways to significantly reduce administrative costs.
Though politics are swirling around the task force, it still may be able to come up with some good suggestions for reducing overhead without harming educational outcomes. If it does, great.
But it’s off to a rocky start.