Eagle editorial: Look for efficiencies

There were no big solutions in a report released this week by Gov. Sam Brownback’s school efficiency task force – a reflection that public schools are already relatively efficient, especially given all the demands and restrictions they face. But there were some ideas worth considering on how districts might stretch their funding further. And every little bit helps.

School officials have been understandably skeptical of the task force, particularly when Brownback initially didn’t appoint any school professionals to it. And some of its recommendations seem more focused on saving the state money or fighting ideological battles than on helping local schools.

For example, the report recommends re-evaluating the state’s obligation to help pay for school bond projects. That would help the state but hurt poorer school districts – and could go against past court rulings requiring equity in school funding.

The task force also recommended revisiting collective-bargaining rights of teachers and such issues as teacher tenure. It would be more productive to work with teacher unions than to treat them like the enemy.

But the report also had some suggestions that could help districts better plan for the future. For example, it recommended a two-year state budget cycle and ensuring the timely payment of state aid (though, as districts learned in recent years, the state can always renege on its promises, so there is no guarantee).

The report also recommended granting districts more flexibility in transferring money out of certain funds, looking at ways to streamline educational reporting, and removing possible barriers to efficiency at the Kansas State Department of Education.

It also included a list of best practices such as cooperative purchasing and privatized food services. Many districts already have such practices, but there might be opportunities for more savings.

The idea that likely has the biggest potential for savings is consolidating school administrations. Brownback has said he isn’t interested in pursuing school district consolidation (though that could save considerable money), but the task force wisely recommended that the state study administration structures and positions, including regionalizing administrations.

The task force also recommended the formation of another group to review the policy goal of having districts spend 65 percent of their funding “in the classroom.” The focus on this one-size-fits-all measure is misguided, as different districts have different circumstances and needs. Also, there is no good research linking the 65 percent threshold to improved educational outcomes.

Nonetheless, Brownback has been citing this made-up measure as evidence that schools aren’t efficient. But as the task force report noted, there needs to be a better definition of what counts as “instruction.” And as its modest recommendations indicate, there aren’t major inefficiencies.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee