Opinion Columns & Blogs

Superintendents: Special interest ads biased, misleading

The following commentary was submitted by school superintendents John Allison of Wichita, Tom Alstrom of Cheney, John Burke of Haysville, Randal Chickadonz of Rose Hill, Charlie Edmonds of Goddard, Mark A. Evans of Andover, Sue Givens of El Dorado, Doug Powers of Maize, Brad Rahe of Mulvane, Mike Roth of Clearwater, Scott Springston of Valley Center and Craig Wilford of Derby:

A special interest group has purchased numerous advertisements across Kansas focusing on increases in public education funding. This group's goal is to cast doubt on school funding. Using information from the Kansas State Department of Education, the group presents a biased interpretation of official data. But data without perspective is misleading:

* Critics say: School funding has increased 26 percent in five years.

The Legislature's own 2006 study on school funding found that districts required increases to meet rising state and federal performance expectations. While funding grew 26 percent, performance expectations grew significantly — 40 percent in reading, 63 percent in math. Performance standards against which schools are judged have not been suspended during this recession.

Additional funding was designated by the Legislature for students who need additional support to achieve. This is why Kansas schools invest more than 70 percent of their funds on instruction and student instructional support. Increased funding has gone into the classroom, and the investment is paying off through increased achievement.

Other significant increases include: voter-approved bond issues, passed to improve facilities because local taxpayers understand that schools are a long-term community investment; Kansas Public Employees Retirement System contributions, because of state lawmakers' decision to reflect these funds in local school budgets; and increases in federal funding primarily devoted to nutrition and to serve children in poverty. In all cases, laws restrict funding for designated expenses.

* Critics say: Districts have large cash balances that could be used to offset budget gaps.

Districts have cash balances on July 1 for the same reason families have cash in the bank at the beginning of each month — to pay bills. Cash balances do not mean the money isn't budgeted. Fund balances in school budgets cover expenses for three to six months because tax revenues do not come in monthly, and in some cases only twice a year.

If this money were not held in reserve, districts wouldn't be able to pay for employees' health insurance, bond payments, utilities, special education or many other regular expenses. With frequent late aid payments from the state, districts' contingency reserve funds have been essential to meeting employee payroll. Furthermore, quoted cash balances are overstated by $205 million of state aid that was delinquent on June 30, 2009.

* Critics say: Schools spend more than $12,000 per student to educate children.

The implication is that this is "too much." However, the total cost of educating students is calculated including many restricted funds, such as bond and capital outlay, KPERS retirement payments, federal funds, grants and targeted funds for special groups of students.

The primary source of revenue used to fund regular education is the base state aid per pupil. These funds, combined with the local option budget (local property taxes), pay for classroom teachers, supplies, technology and utilities, along with the support systems needed to run a district.

Current state law says that the base state aid per pupil should be $4,656 this year. Instead, schools are at $4,012. The House Appropriations Committee recommended an additional $131 cut per pupil, down to $3,881. This is a 17 percent reduction from current law, and comes at a time when schools continue to be held accountable for increasingly high performance expectations.

The value that Kansas taxpayers are receiving from their K-12 public education system has never been better. Continued budget reductions will be devastating. Funding education today will help tomorrow's Kansas communities compete for industry and help maintain our state as a great place to live, work and raise families.