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Archive for Monday, April 15, 2002

Education tax bite in Kansas higher than national average

April 15, 2002

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Kansans pay more to support higher education than residents of most states. But they pay less for K-12 education than residents of other states, mostly because of relatively low teacher pay here.

Those are some of the tidbits in new rankings from Governing magazine, which compared state and local government spending in education and other categories.

Education officials here said the rankings showed what they already knew.

"Education is kind of a bargain," Lawrence Supt. Randy Weseman said. "We've got a lot of people in it, and we're not paying that much for it ... and we turn out educated students. That's a picture we've seen over and over again."

But Lynn Bretz, a Kansas University spokeswoman, said the higher education numbers were deceiving because many states that ranked lower let private schools handle the bulk of students.

"What I see is what we know about Kansas," she said. "We've made public access to education a priority."

Among the rankings' highlights:

l Kansans are more likely to be students than residents of other states. More than 17 percent of the population were enrolled in public K-12 schools  good for a 13th rank in the nation. And 5.9 percent of the population were enrolled in public higher education; only New Mexico ranked higher in that category.

l The state ranked eighth in the nation in per capita spending on higher education. Kansans paid an average of $617 in taxes for every man, woman and child in the state to fund universities, community colleges and technical schools.

l But Kansas ranked 35th in the United States on per capita spending on K-12 education, an average of $1,116 per person.

l K-12 teacher salaries in Kansas were among the lowest in the nation. The state ranked 40th, with average annual pay being $35,784.

l The result was that Kansas ended up in the middle of the pack on education spending at all levels. It ranked 21st in the nation in per capita spending at $1,797 a year.

"As a general rule, our expenditures are in the average range, our academics will be in the top 10 and our teacher salaries will be lower," said Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education.

Higher scores

Kansas students did better than the national average on ACT scores and standardized math tests, among others.

"When we consider the results we get, in terms of performance on national standards, we're getting a pretty good bang for our buck," said Kathy Toelkes, spokeswoman for the state education department.

That, officials said, showed the state has good teachers. But they fear that could change, especially now that legislators are considering cuts in education spending.

"You've got to realize it's not always going to stay that way," Weseman said of the state's academic performance. "Our teachers' salaries are slipping  if that continues, will the quality continue?"

Gov. Bill Graves agrees.

"I'm sure $30,000 in Kansas will go considerably farther than in New York or Los Angeles," said Don Brown, Graves' spokesman. "At the same time, you don't want to get the reputation of a low-salary state."

Threatened state budget cuts make big salary increases unlikely in the near future. Some districts, like Lawrence, are cutting their teaching staffs as a result.

"There's no way that schools can absorb that cost any other way," Brown said. "There's not a cheaper school bus or lower-quality textbooks."

Higher-ed funding

KU officials said the rankings shouldn't obscure the university's need for more funding.

In 1999, the Legislature reorganized the higher-education system and promised state universities, community colleges and technical schools more money. Higher ed was supposed to see a $45 million increase during the state's next fiscal year, but no budget proposal lawmakers have considered this year would get close to that.

Bretz said even though the rankings showed high per capita funding for higher education in Kansas, they also showed state and local dollars only pay about 74 percent of the costs. The average level of state and local support across the nation was about 83 percent.

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