Last year, when Rick Ginsberg was pondering whether to move his family to Lawrence from Colorado, public school quality was key to his decision.
Ginsberg, who has two young children, spoke with several Lawrence school administrators before deciding to move here. As the new dean of Kansas University's School of Education, Ginsberg knows good schools when he sees them.
When it comes to attracting new faculty members, he said, Lawrence schools are a "selling point."
"I don't know how it could be better than here. This is a good community with very good public schools," Ginsberg said.
He said university towns almost always have good public schools because of their highly educated populations and strong community support.
So how do Lawrence schools stack up against those of other university towns in the region?
Three key selling points of a good district are a low student-to-teacher ratio, a high per-pupil spending average and above-average state test scores. The lower the student-to-teacher ratio, the more attention students get, which often leads to better test scores.
Also, the higher the per-pupil spending average is, the more resources the student usually has. That means up-to-date computers, books and access to special education programs.
Lawrence's per-pupil spending average is above average in comparison to other college towns. That could explain the district's high-quality special education programs, which Ginsberg said appealed to him most.
Lawrence's student-to-teacher ratio - 15:1 - is average, compared with Ames, home to Iowa State University; Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa; Columbia, home to the University of Missouri; Stillwater, home to Oklahoma State University; Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma; and Manhattan, home to Kansas State University.
Those factors might be the reason why Lawrence students are scoring above the state average on math and reading proficiency tests.
But local schools aren't perfect. Julie Boyle, director of communications for Lawrence public schools, said the district is trying to work on hiring a more diverse staff to match the diverse student body. She said many Kansas schools are trying to do the same thing.
And Ginsberg said Lawrence schools sometimes overemphasize testing and underemphasize languages.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the Manhattan-Ogden public schools and the Ames Community School District in Iowa spend about $500 more yearly per pupil than Lawrence.
Spending more money didn't seem to make much difference when students were tested: All three top-spending districts boast above-average state testing scores.
Comparing the districts side-by-side, however, would be difficult if not impossible. Each state has different testing standards and systems, so using one to contrast another would be like comparing apples to oranges.
Because Manhattan and Lawrence both follow Kansas standard testing, though, stacking them up against one another is feasible. According to greatschools.com, Manhattan's scores are consistently higher than Lawrence's, though both are above the state average. That could be because Manhattan has a lower student-to-teacher ratio.
Michele Jones, communications coordinator for Manhattan-Ogden public schools, said it's the district's high-quality teachers that make the difference.
By the numbers
The Lawrence school district spends $8,953 per pupil annually. The ratio of students to certified staff is 15:1. ¢ Manhattan-Ogden public schools: $9,436, 13:1 ¢ Norman public schools: $6,441, 18:1 ¢ Stillwater public schools: $6,480, 17:1 ¢ Ames Community School District: $9,496, 13:1 ¢ Iowa City Community School District: $8,198, 15:1 ¢ Columbia public schools: $8,594, 13:1 Sources: greatschools.com for student to certified staff ratios, National Center for Education Statistics for per-pupil spending averages.
And because of the Manhattan school district's close relationship with KSU's education program, there are extra volunteers or student teachers on hand to provide students more individual attention.
Jones said finances, not education, were the biggest challenge for the district.
"I don't think our weakness has anything to do with education. We still don't know the budget next year, and school starts in (three) weeks," Jones said.
That problem exists for all Kansas school districts, which are still waiting for state funding figures for the 2006-07 school year.
Among most of the major college towns in the region, about 30 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, which means poverty levels are comparable.
The only town with an apparently higher level of low-income students is Norman, Okla., where 36 percent are eligible for reduced-price or free lunches.
Norman's schools also have one of the lowest per-pupil spending averages, $6,441.
Even so, the school district's test scores are well above the state average.
Brenda Burkett, a district administrator in Norman, said funding is the district's main problem. She said she'd like to place a nurse in every school in Norman, but there's simply not enough money.
Even at the Iowa City Community School District, which spends $8,198 per pupil, funding is an ongoing concern. Supt. Lane Plugge said he'd like "additional revenues for more programs or to improve programs."
Still, he said, the Iowa City schools have a record of excellent academic achievement and tremendous community support like most college towns. Plugge said the school's sports and music programs are well-known throughout the state.
No Child Left Behind
Another problem shared by the districts is the federal No Child Left Behind program. Though most district administrators said they have seen some improvement in student performance, they also say the time and cost involved with the federally mandated testing can be draining.
Bruce Stiles, board treasurer of Manhattan-Ogden public schools, said No Child Left Behind "is extremely challenging on the finance side."
He said teachers spend a lot of time preparing and testing students specifically for the program, and the district hasn't been able to do a "great job in compensating them" for that extra time.
Ginsberg, the KU dean, said he has mixed feelings about the highly complex federal program. He said sometimes, it can lead schools to focus too much on next year's test scores and not enough on long-term learning.