What is spent in Kansas classrooms?

U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback criticized schools during a recent debate for not delivering enough money to the classroom.

Brownback, the Republican candidate for governor, said the state is full of school districts that have "nice school buildings but can't afford the teachers in the classroom" and noted that little more than half the money allocated to schools goes to classrooms.

Education officials dispute that number. They say the amount is 61 percent statewide — higher if you count instructional support such as librarians, counselors and speech therapists.

So who's right?

The answer depends on how you count the spending.

The U.S. Census Bureau counts money budgeted for general school spending in numbers used nationwide for comparisons. It doesn't include capital outlay or bond spending for buildings.

One reason those numbers are generally left out of spending calculations is that they vary more dramatically year to year than do the other costs, said Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, senior fellow and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy for the Brookings Institution.

By the Census Bureau's calculation, 61.54 percent, or $2.9 billion, of operating expenditures in Kansas schools went to instruction during the 2008-2009 school year. Another 4.71 percent, $220 million, went to pupil support services such as speech pathologists, health services and guidance counselors, and 4.46 percent, $209 million, went to support services such as libraries and career centers.

The percentage of money going into the classroom has stayed almost the same since 2005, when 60.39 percent of education money went into the classroom, according to Census data.

The free-market think tank Kansas Policy Institute includes bond money and capital outlay when it calculates school spending. It pegs the amount going into classrooms at 54.5 percent on average in Kansas, said Dave Trabert, the group's president.

"From a taxpayer standpoint, money is money. It costs people who are contributing money through taxes to support schools," he said.

Brownback's campaign did not specify what he based his numbers on.

No matter what figures were used, all reports show Kansas schools on average spend between 55 and 61 percent on classroom instruction, said Brownback's spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag.

Legislative goal

Brownback and his Democratic opponent, Tom Holland, both indicate they would like to see schools spend 65 percent in the classroom — a goal legislators set in 2005 — though they differ in how that might be achieved.

Lawmakers added the goal during a special legislative session called to address a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that the state had not complied with a constitutional mandate to adequately fund education.

The Wichita School District spent 55.6 percent of its budget in the classroom during the 2008-09 school year, about $287 million, according to Kansas Department of Education records.

That percentage rises to 70.9 when support services such as librarians and guidance counselors are included.

"The reality is we are already there and well above," said Wichita superintendent John Allison.

"It is a populist rhetoric that isn't new, to say that you want a percentage going into the classroom," he said.

Federal definitions for instruction mostly cover teacher pay and supplies, but the definition does not include things like library service, college counselors, speech and language specialists.

To most people, "all of those would be part of providing the education to the student," Allison said.

Wichita puts more money into its support services than some other districts because of its student demographics, he said.

"There are over 80 languages spoken in the district," he noted. "For those students to become successful, that is where our support staff comes in."

Defining classroom spending

How classroom spending would be defined is something that Brownback wants to work on with stakeholders, including teachers, school officials and parents, Jones-Sontag said.

"A Brownback administration wants to get more funding into classrooms because that is where teachers teach and students learn," she said.

Part of that discussion should be what counts as money spent in the classroom, said Seth Bundy, Holland's spokesman.

"We must be getting more resources directly into the classroom. The first step is to stop further cuts to public education," Bundy said.

No clear formula

There's more than one way to look at instructional spending.

"It is not straightforward or clear which one is best," said Whitehurst, from the Brookings Institution.

It's also not as important to look at how much money is going into the classroom as it is to look at how that money is being spent, he said.

Nationally, the U.S. Census Bureau ranks Kansas 22nd in terms of money going into the classroom for the 2007-08 school year — the most recent numbers available through the bureau. The report shows Kansas spends $5,922 per student in the classroom. New York state tops the list, funneling $11,818 per student into classroom instruction while Utah comes in last, spending $3,718.

Nationwide, schools spend $6,211 on average in classroom instruction.