‘In classroom’ latest excuse to short schools

There’s always an excuse for not adequately funding public education in Kansas.
There’s always an excuse for not adequately funding public education in Kansas.

After previously complaining that the school funding formula was too complicated, Gov. Sam Brownback now says not enough spending goes “in the classroom.”

There’s always an excuse for not adequately funding public education in Kansas.

Brownback told Associated Press that he and like-minded legislators would be willing to consider whether the state is spending enough on schools if more money went directly to instruction.

“But right now, you’ve got this high percentage that’s not getting to the classroom,” Brownback said.

According to 2013-14 data, 61.4 percent of Kansas school operating spending goes directly to classroom instruction, as defined by the National Center for Education Statistics. An additional 5 percent goes to student support, including guidance counseling, school nurses, social workers, psychologists and speech pathology – services that most people consider essential to education but are not included in the narrow definition of “classroom instruction.” The remaining spending includes 9.8 percent for operation and maintenance, 5.8 percent for school site administration, and 2.6 percent for general district administration.

Brownback argues that school districts need to be more efficient in their back-office operations, such as how they purchase information technology services or insurance.

“No student would see any difference, but you would recognize more money available to put into the classroom to pay teachers more,” he said.

Should school districts be frugal in how they spend money on administration? Of course. Are there ways to pool resources and reduce some costs? Likely, though many districts already do that.

But administration and operational spending also matter to education. Most teachers will say that a key to a good school is a good principal, and bus drivers, cooks and janitors help keep schools functioning.

“Yes, I’d like to have had a raise or I’d like to have more money in materials and supplies,” Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, a retired 33-year teacher, told AP. “But I also didn’t want the roof to leak on our computer equipment.”

What’s more, Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson argues that districts need to spend more on social workers and school counselors. He held community conversations throughout the state last summer and fall. The consensus of parents, teachers, business leaders and other participants was that the schools need to focus more on nonacademic skills such as conscientiousness, emotional stability and work ethic.

Brownback has previously complained that districts aren’t spending 65 percent of their operating budgets in the classroom, a goal once championed by the founder of Overstock.com.

But there is no research showing a relationship between the 65 percent threshold and improved student outcomes. Even a school efficiency task force that Brownback created concluded the goal was arbitrary and had “no science” behind it.

But Brownback’s complaints aren’t really about improving outcomes. They are about raising doubts about district spending so the state has an excuse to keep shortchanging schools.