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Archive for Saturday, August 25, 2001

Proposed index could offer guidance on university funding

August 25, 2001

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What is the proper level of state funding for education in Kansas? Are there any sound guidelines state legislators can use to decide how much they should earmark for K-12 public schools or for higher education?

Do different types of schools merit different levels of state support? How important is it for Kansas colleges and universities to receive state support at the same level of their respective peer institutions?

There doesn't seem to be any proper yardstick to use, and, consequently, state lawmakers usually find themselves in a battle with those representing various levels of education over how much state tax support they should receive.

In the case of higher education funding, how are state legislators expected to know how much to allocate to the regents schools? Should they place enough faith in the university chancellor and presidents and the Kansas Board of Regents to give blanket approval to their recommendations? Should they give preference to the package proposed in the governor's annual budget?

Lawmakers probably begin their legislative sessions with the belief that those in education will ask for more than they really need and more than they really expect to get. Those in education probably pad their budget requests with the expectation they will be trimmed.

As a result, the public has a front-row seat to the annual struggle between educators and lawmakers over the proper level of funding for education. What it boils down to is that legislators don't trust the educators, and educators don't think lawmakers appreciate the importance to the state of a good education system and the funding to support it.

Many state legislators doubt they ever could satisfy university leaders no matter how much they appropriate.

The problem is that lobbyists and representatives of higher education don't have enough objective data to support their requests. Educators and regents ask for millions of tax dollars each year, but how are the lawmakers to know what's proper, what's excessive and what's a dangerously low level of funding? How efficient and effective are the various schools in spending state tax dollars?

A plan that is in the offing may start to bring some accountability to requests from educators. Granted, it touches only a small portion of the overall budget request for regents' institutions, but it is a plan that could provide some solid figures for lawmakers to consider as they make their funding decisions.

Regents Chairman Clay Blair of Johnson County is proposing the creation of an index to gauge the effectiveness of the administration at each of the regents schools. Blair pointed out, "all institutions have bureaucratic creep. Having an index will give us a standard to judge administrative efficiency. Right now, our standards are not well defined." He said state lawmakers have said they want this kind of information.

Blair said the index he is supporting will show whether the costs of running a state university are in line with the achievements of the school. He added that if the plan or index is accepted by regents, it could be in place by the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2002. He said that if an index shows one school is being run more efficiently than another, it could help all schools raise their efficiency.

Regents schools already informally report how much they are spending on "institutional support," which usually includes the costs of executive and midlevel management, printing, purchases and human resources.

In fiscal year 2000, Kansas University's institutional support was 6.2 percent of its total spending. Kansas State University's institutional support was 4.2 percent; Wichita State was 6.4 percent and the three smaller regents universities Pittsburg State, Fort Hays and Emporia ranged between 7 and 7.8 percent.

The trouble is, it is doubtful that each school is supplying identical information and including expenditures for similar programs.

As might be expected, the idea of being audited or compared to other regents schools is not going over too well with some university leaders. They claim it costs more to run certain types of schools, and, consequently, it is unfair to compare. On the other hand, Blair's plan is not meant to compare the number of dollars that may be spent for administration at one school with those of another school, but rather to look at the percentage of each school's total budget going to administrative expenses. It stands to reason that many legislators might be more inclined to appropriate increased funding to those schools that show they are being efficient in the use of those funds.

Right now, there is no way for regents or legislators to know administrative costs. And they sure don't have any idea what it costs to run a school of education, a school of engineering or a school of business at one university versus another. So how do they know the proper level of funding they should approve for each school?

Unfortunately, it appears the idea of trying to develop an index for even a small area of a university's operation is going to be a tough sell on various campuses. A KU spokesman said it would be difficult for the schools to agree on what should be counted as "administrative expenses" because each school tabulates its expenses differently.

For example, he said, he had no idea how many KU employees were considered "administrative." He asked how administrative expenses could be compared when each school has a different mission.

If professional educators cannot agree on what should be counted as administrative expense, and if a person who spends full-time trying to sell legislators on the importance of proper funding for KU has no idea how many KU employees should be counted as administrators, how in the world can state legislators be expected to know how much they should appropriate for a wide range of programs?

If legislators were provided some valid yardsticks by which to measure how well a university is meeting its goal and how effectively it is using state tax dollars, chances are those schools and those administrators who are doing a good job might be rewarded by more generous appropriations from state lawmakers.

Based on the hit-and-miss funding procedures of past years, it seems the idea of an evaluation index has merit, would be appreciated by state lawmakers and would result in more realistic funding for the regents schools.

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