Opinion Columns & Blogs

Tax increases and lawsuit not needed

A commentary by Kansas State Board of Education member David Dennis said that educators "just ask that (legislators) make their decisions based on accurate information, with the future of our students in mind" ("Fund balances won't save schools," Jan. 3 Opinion).

I completely agree, and just ask that educators do the same. Unfortunately, some have been making their case for tax increases and lawsuits with a healthy dose of inaccurate and misleading information.

For example, Dennis said a fellow board member "alleges" that schools started the current year with $700 million in carryover cash reserves (in addition to money for capital projects and bond payments) that could be used to fund education. This is no allegation. It is a fact that my organization obtained from the Kansas State Department of Education. Here are some other facts we discovered that have been confirmed by the department:

* Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis says schools can legally use those reserves for current expenses, freeing general-fund receipts for other purposes.

* That $700 million total has grown 53 percent over the past four years, which means that schools haven't spent all the money they received.

* No independent audit of the necessary ending balances in each fund has been performed.

Certainly some carryover is necessary, but the minimum required balances have not been determined. So, combined with the fact that these balances have grown 53 percent, it's quite likely that a good portion of the money could be used to avoid budget cuts.

Here's another fact confirmed by the department that has been conveniently ignored or distorted: Schools are getting a lot more than $4,012 in base state aid per pupil. Total average aid to schools from state, federal and property-tax sources this year is $12,225, or just 3.43 percent less than last year.

There is also ample evidence that schools are spending more money than necessary. A July 2009 study by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit found that many districts are much less efficient than others and offered 80 recommendations to save money. The 2010 Commission ordered the study, phase two of which would have sent auditors into schools to help find ways to save money. But districts objected, so the 2010 Commission canceled phase two and now is calling for more state aid to schools, knowing that other options exist.

Our own study of K-12 expenditures found that per-pupil spending in 2007-08 ranged from $9,017 to $25,240. If high-spending districts had just been at the median cost per pupil of similar-sized districts, that would have saved $636 million. The complete analysis is available at the Web site www.KansasPolicy.org.

Dennis referred to another legislative report that found a correlation between increases in education spending and achievement scores, which he and others have used to justify their demands. They neglect to mention, however, that auditors did not say higher spending caused test scores to increase. (It's a well-known research principle that correlation does not imply causation.) That same report also said the educational research "offers mixed opinions about whether increased spending for educational inputs is related to improved student performance."

The truth is that these facts and others refute schools' case for higher spending.