Debate more complex than 'cut, cut, cut'
By MARK PETERSON
Kansans who believe public education is not worth the price they have to pay for it have a champion to carry their banner. On Sept. 6, former state board of education member, Walt Chappell, filed a friend of the court brief in Gannon v. Kansas. Gannon asserts the Legislature has failed to follow the Kansas Supreme Court's 2005 Montoy v. Kansas opinion regarding the constitutional requirement to "make suitable provision" K-12 education. The Legislature provided $4,400 in funding per pupil in 2005, but has cut this figure to $3,838 for the current year.
Chappell's brief focuses on this "base state aid per pupil" plus other state resources supporting public education. He strives to link the money spent on public education to its alleged failings. Lagging student performance in spite of new standards, new curricula, new requirements for teachers and the addition of substantial numbers of support staff and administrators constitutes the story Chappell presents.
His argument boils down to "Education isn't worth the price we pay for it." He interprets his data to argue that much more than enough money is spent, all the while producing poor results. Closely examining his data is something every concerned Kansan should do. That effort might reach different conclusions from those drawn by Chappell.
He provides appendices showing that the state is contributing proportionately less to K-12 education than it did 15 years ago. It's true that total spending has increased by more than $2.7 billion since the 1997-98 school year, about 6.3 percent per year. The state's share of the cost then was just shy of 60 percent. It fell to 55 percent for 2011-12 and is less than that now. Federal sources provide just 6 percent to 8 percent of K-12 funding, meaning the rest falls on local property taxpayers.
Moreover K-12 school population has been as flat as the state's topography -- 450,000 students each year, but hidden in this figure is the large shift in where they live. The state's population has shifted south and east in the 15 years Chappell covers. Western Kansas still has children, but they bus farther, occupy classrooms in smaller numbers and generally cost more per pupil than their middle-class urban counterparts.
Chappell argues the increase in spending has produced bloat and inefficiency. Much of the growth in costs is attributable to the addition of support personnel over this period providing services to children with disabilities both mild and profound.
We now "mainstream" all those kids because education experts, parents, and the public, as reflected in state and federal laws, have concluded that warehousing or ignoring children with learning disabilities, ADHD and physical disabilities maltreats these children and deprives all students of the socialization and interactive experiences necessary to learn how to live humanely in a diverse society. To be sure, integrating these special needs children requires more therapists, aides, and para-professionals and that costs money.
Chappell grouses that children raised in poverty cultures and bilingual or non-English speaking homes are ill-prepared for public education and pull down the performance scores. This is nothing more than softly worded bigotry. If we want to improve their capabilities we have to do more with these children in our public schools, not less.
Public schools require a lot of money, and given human behavior some may be wasted, but severe and indiscriminate cutbacks are no remedy. Withholding resources to shock the beast into more compliant and effective behavior reminds me of H.L. Mencken's observation, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.