Kansas lawmakers and representatives from various education groups gave cautious, and in some cases skeptical, reactions Tuesday to a report calling for changes in the way the state funds public schools and how school districts manage their budgets.
The final report from Gov. Sam Brownback's School Efficiency Task Force made specific recommendations, along with a list of proposed “best practices” that the group said were intended to “get more money in the classroom and less in administration and overhead costs.”
One of the immediate questions raised, however, is how to define what qualifies as a classroom expense, as opposed to administrative overhead.
In fact, one of the recommendations calls for forming a task force to establish a commonly accepted definition of instructional spending.
“There currently does not exist a consistent understanding and uniform level of acceptance as to the definition of what functions constitute instructional spending,” the report stated.
The standard definition from the U.S. Census Bureau, which is used for state reporting purposes, is limited to “activities dealing directly with the interaction between teachers and students. It includes the cost of teachers and teachers aides, for example, but does not include the cost of librarians, guidance counselors, speech pathologists, school nurses or many other services.
“We always tell our members everything in your budget should be about improving instruction,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “And so we're always uncomfortable with the idea that you draw these lines and say, 'this is getting to the classroom or helping the classroom.' It ought to all be about helping, and that may look different in different districts.”
Lowering overall costs
Many of the recommendations were geared to lowering overall costs to the state, rather than redirecting current expenses from administration to instruction.
Those included recommendations to review, and possibly limit, money the state spends to subsidize bond and interest payments and capital outlay budgets for lower-wealth school districts.
Those subsidies are known as “equalization aid,” and they are intended to make sure districts with low property valuations can finance construction projects and major purchases by levying roughly the same property tax mill levies as wealthier districts.
Kansas stopped funding capital outlay equalization after fiscal year 2009. That year, the program cost the state about $22.4 million, according to the State Department of Education. A court ruling earlier this month in the school finance lawsuit declared that unconstitutional unless the Legislature resumes funding the equalization.
But the state still funds bond and interest equalization, at a cost of about $107 million in the current fiscal year, an expense the task force described as an “open-ended obligation” because the cost in any given year is determined by how much debt local school districts issue, not by how much the Legislature decides to spend.
“The intent is to retain the principle of equalization, but allow the Legislature to place an annual (or) biannual cap on new equalization obligation to be incurred,” the task force said.
Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, who chairs the House Education Committee, said she supports efforts to limit future expenses in those categories.
“I think going forward, we've really got to look at what the available revenue is,” Kelley said. “I am not of the impression that it's a practice that needs to stop. But I do think we probably need to slow it for a couple of years and take a look at what we have as far as money available.”
But House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said limiting equalization aid could cause more legal and constitutional problems for the state.
“I do think that we do run the risk of drawing the ire of the court if we don't maintain some equity in the way that we finance schools. We have to be very mindful of that issue because we will simply land back in court if we are not able to disburse funds in a manner that shows equity to the best degree that we can.”
Perhaps the most controversial part of the report calls for revising or narrowing the Professional Negotiations Act, the state law that governs collective bargaining between school districts and teachers unions.
The task force made three recommendations in that area, including one that would allow districts to pay higher salaries to some teachers based on performance or on what subjects they teach.
Currently, most districts have salary schedules that apply to all teachers, with increases based solely on their level of education and years of service in the district. But many school administrators have argued for years that they should be able to offer higher salaries to attract teachers into hard-to-fill positions such as special education and high school science and math.
But Karen Godfrey, president of the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said there is no need to change collective bargaining laws to accomplish that.
“If there is a need to differentiate the pay, that's why you bargain it,” Godfrey said. “If the intent is to make something work well in the district, it seems to me getting the buy-in of the teachers would make a lot of sense.”
Meanwhile, Deena Burnett, president of the Lawrence Education Association, said it has been a long-standing policy of the local teachers union that all teachers should be paid a fair wage.
“We are asked to work with the whole child, and we're asked to produce the whole child who is able to function in the world,” Burnett said. “And I believe if we begin pitting teachers against one another due to salary, or due to availability of positions, then we begin to destroy the foundation that it takes for us to present that whole child in a healthy, whole way.”
The task force also recommended narrowing the list of items that are automatically subject to negotiation, and reviewing the entire state policy on granting teachers tenure, which entitles them to a due process hearing before they can be fired or laid off.
KNEA President Godfrey said the task force report, combined with other legislative proposals being introduced, threaten to greatly reduce the ability of teachers to be part of education policy decisions.
“It is important to us that our voice is heard, and there do appear to be a number of bills that would limit our ability to have a voice in decisions that affect our kids and our working conditions,” Godfrey said. “Some of the issues look to be an attack on teachers.”