Topeka — A spokeswoman for a union that represents teachers in the Wichita school district told a state education panel Tuesday that one way to make Kansas schools more efficient is to stop cutting.
"Our classrooms and teachers need not be inequitably saddled with the burden of balancing state budgets," said Deena Burnett, a former president of the Lawrence local teachers union who now lobbies for the American Federation of Teachers and United Teachers of Wichita.
Burnett was one of several education advocates who testified Tuesday before the state's K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission. That group was established in the 2014 school finance bill to make recommendations to the 2015 Legislature on ways the state can make the best use of its education budget.
Citing a recent report published by Education Week, Burnett said that since 2009, "funding for educational programs that can actually be spent on teachers, administrators and student support programs has declined by $500 million."
Specifically, she said general fund budgets, which are set by the state, and special education funding have been cut by about $160 million.
The result, Burnett said, has been sluggish economic growth and lower wage earnings for Kansas workers.
"A state's economy cannot outpace the quality of its public schools and any stifling of funding is in essence a stifling of state growth," Burnett said.
The report she cited, however, based its analysis on state spending in 2011, and did not take into account increases that the Legislature has approved since then, including increases ordered earlier this year by the Kansas Supreme Court.
Her remarks stood in stark contrast to recent statements by Gov. Sam Brownback, who says total education funding has grown to an all-time high under his administration and that the state's economy is showing strong signs of recovery.
The remarks also drew sharp criticism from one of the commission members, Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Wichita.
"Funding for education has increased, according to the Department of Education, every year since 2012," Trabert said.
Trabert, however, was referring to the total K-12 education budget, which includes state contributions to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, or KPERS, as well as other spending not directly tied to classroom spending.
The biggest sources of funding for schools — and the ones that directly affect each district's ability to fund teacher salaries and other direct educational costs — are the general fund and the supplemental fund, often called the "local option budget."
Each district's general fund budget is determined on a per-pupil basis. And since 2009, base funding per pupil has gone down, from about $4,000 to $3,858 today.
In addition to their general funds, districts are allowed to add up to 30 percent through a local option budget, funded mainly from local property taxes. The state subsidizes those budgets on a sliding scale to equalize taxes between rich and poor districts.
But for three years after the recession, Kansas lawmakers froze funding for that equalization aid, which meant districts received less than they were otherwise entitled to receive.
Earlier this year, the Kansas Supreme Court declared that unconstitutional, and the Legislature eventually complied with an order to restore full funding for the equalization aid.
The K-12 commission also heard from representatives of the Kansas Association of School Boards, United School Administrators of Kansas and the Kansas National Education Association.
They urged the commission not to equate efficient spending with less spending.
Commission chairman Sam Williams, a former chairman of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the panel was not looking for ways to cut education spending, but rather ways to make the best use from what the state spends.