Kan. school efficiencies task force begins work

JOHN MILBURN, Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. -- A Kansas school funding task force heard from a policy analyst Monday who said what matters isn't the amount of money spent on K-12 education but how it's spent.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative, free-market research and advocacy group, told members of the task force appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback that spending data and test scores suggest that subtle changes in yearly spending don't greatly affect student achievement.

"Certainly money matters. You can't take it all away," Trabert said. "But simply spending a little less is not going to have an impact on outcomes. Or spending more."

Much of his presentation focused on the amount of money that districts spend each year on instruction, operation costs and capital improvements. He said there were spending differences between large and small districts, based on the idea of economies of scale. But he added that there were also variances between districts of similar size that couldn't readily be explained by just examining the raw budget data.

According to figures provided to the task force, Kansas will spend $5.77 billion on K-12 education this fiscal year, up from $5.59 billion in the previous year. Brownback said in September when he formed the task force that he wanted to see districts hit the goal of putting 65 percent of resources into classroom instruction, arguing that only 15 districts are meeting that goal currently.

The task force also was scheduled to hear Monday from the Kansas Association of School Boards and deputy education commissioner Dale Dennis from the Kansas Department of Education.

State Board of Education member Ken Willard, who heads the task force, said the group should keep politics out of the process and focus on improving the system. Among the other members are certified public accountants.

"The work we are about to undertake is important not only to the taxpayers but the school children who will be taxpayers," Willard said, adding that the group would hear from educators and advocates in future meetings

Democrats have criticized the absence of teachers and school administrators on the board. They also are concerned that spending on education will be cut in upcoming state budgets as a result of new income tax rates that take effect Jan. 1. State agencies, including education, have been asked by Brownback's administration to prepare budgets with 10 percent reductions.

Trabert said the task force should identify barriers that keep districts from spending money more efficiently, and the next step would be to remove those barriers.

Stephen Iliff, a member of the task force from Topeka, said he had been told over the years from administrators that they were able to get the most out of their students, staff and resources by creating a culture of success. He said that included removing teachers and staff who weren't performing well.

Trabert said schools were no different than private-sector businesses that need ongoing reviews of outcomes.

"Changing that culture is critical," he said.