Last week we ran a story about a poll on school finance issues conducted by the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute, including reaction from education advocates who said the questions were loaded with false or misleading information that appeared aimed at eliciting a negative response.
At the time, KPI defended the wording of the question, as did the polling firm SurveyUSA. Since then, however, another education advocacy group, the Kansas Association of School Boards, has weighed in with more information, prompting KPI to concede that one question was misleading. In a phone call with the Journal-World Friday afternoon, KPI spokesman James Franko said the group would soon post a clarification on its own blog.
The text of the question read:
A state court has effectively ordered legislators to increase school funding by $443 million, which would also automatically increase local property taxes by another $154 million. Regardless of whether you believe schools are adequately funded, how would you respond to this statement: It is appropriate for the courts to have final say on decisions of how much taxpayer money is spent on education.”
Many observers objected to the idea that local property tax increases would be "automatic." It was based on the assumption that if the courts order an increase in base state aid, all districts would continue levying the same percentage for their "local option budgets," or LOB's. Ten districts, including Lawrence, are allowed to levy up to 31 percent of their base state aid; the others are capped at 30 percent.
But as KASB's Mark Tallman pointed out in a recent blog, the issue gets more complicated than that, and it speaks to the very heart of a couple of key issues in the lawsuit itself.
Base state aid is currently calculated at $3,838 per pupil, far lower than the $4,492 required by law. That's because when the Great Recession hit in 2008, state revenues plummeted and the Kansas Legislature cut funding. But the cuts were complicated.
In short, while the state is funding base budgets at $3,838 per pupil, it allowed districts to continue levying LOB's as if base aid had gone up, as scheduled at the time, to $4,433 per pupil. Therefore, if the Kansas Supreme Court orders the state to increase its base aid formula to $4,492, where it's supposed to be now, local districts wouldn't get that much more taxing authority. They've already gotten the increased taxing authority that would flow from most of that increase.
Tallman estimates there would only be $14 million worth of new local taxing authority statewide - not the $154 million that KPI plugged into its polling question.
For its part, KPI says before it put the poll in the field, it confirmed its estimates with Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis. And they forwarded an email from Dennis in which he confirms that he overlooked this quirk in LOB law when he spoke with KPI.
But there are still a few points worth noting:
First, local school boards must take affirmative action every year to decide where they want to set their LOB percentage. If base state aid goes up as a result of a court decision, some districts - possibly including Lawrence, which traditionally levies the maximum amount, whatever that may be - will continue to do so.
But others are likely to come under intense pressure from local voters to use the additional money for tax relief. That's likely to be the case in poorer districts that were forced to raise the LOB's in order to make up for the state funding cuts that began in 2008-2009. So it is false to say there is anything "automatic" about any LOB increases.
Second, one aspect of the lawsuit that often goes unreported concerns "equalization aid" for poorer districts. That's another thing the Legislature has cut, and it's something the plaintiffs are suing to get back. It amounts to a subsidy for lower-wealth districts that would otherwise have to impose huge property taxes to raise the same amount of money as a wealthier district of the same size. So if the Supreme Court sides with the plaintiffs on that issue, as the trial court did, those districts could continue levying the same LOB, and they would see an automatic tax cut.
Third, even with the polling question loaded with that false and inflammatory premise, nearly half of all respondents still preferred to let the courts, as opposed to the Legislature, have the final say in determining how much money is spent. The split was 50 percent to 47 percent against giving the courts that power, well within the 4.5-percent margin of error.
And finally, many observers — including this one — think it is dangerous to assume anything about how the Kansas Supreme Court will or won't rule. During oral arguments in October, it appeared there were a number of justices looking for some graceful way to wash their hands of this case entirely.
It didn't take long after the release of state and national ACT scores for certain groups to start spinning the numbers for political gain.
Those numbers, you may recall from today's story, showed average scores in Kansas holding pretty much steady from the year before, and still well above the national average.
Of course, some might argue that, itself, was the "spin" from the Kansas State Department of Education. And their spin was quickly followed by a news release from the Lawrence school district, indicating the average scores here were well above the state average.
It didn't take long, however, for others to get in the game.
Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School boards posted today that the report was a mixed bag of results, but that overall scores in Kansas have been declining in rough correlation to the cuts in public school funding since 2009.
It's an interesting graph, but it calls to mind the old Latin phrase, *Post hoc, ergo propter hoc" — "after this, therefore because of this." Note that the Kansas line runs consistently above, yet parallel to, the national line, and both lines slope downward in about the same proportion, even though not all states have cut education funding by the same degree that Kansas has.
Meanwhile, the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute jumped into the game with a blog post of its own, reminding us that there's always a dark cloud behind every silver lining.
Dave Trabert, executive director of KPI, makes a few good and valid points as he cautions people about making comparisons between districts, or between states, or between district and state and national averages.
The problem, he notes, is that within any of those population groups, there are glaring disparities between scores of whites, blacks, Hispanics and others. So the racial composition of any district or state will tend to skew the results.
Based on that, he goes on to point out that when you compare racial groups across states, Kansas is really not as good as it looks at first, and that Texas, with an average ACT score of 20.9, is actually doing better than Kansas, with its average score of 21.8.
Texas, by the way, often is cited by Gov. Sam Brownback's administration as a model to emulate because it has no state income tax. It's also the state that ranks 49th in the nation for per-pupil spending on education, which reinforces one of KPI's key arguments about school spending — that more money doesn't yield better performance.
To make this point, KPI often tries to use data showing that Kansas has, in its view, outrageously high per-pupil spending on schools, but that it gets only mediocre, by the group's estimation, outcomes from it.
With regard to the ACT scores, however, KPI misses another important point. There are more variables at work than simply states and races. And that omission can lead people to believe, mistakenly, that if you simply adjust for the different racial makeup of a state or district, you can make valid comparisons.
But the ACT is not a random sample survey. The people who take the exam are not a representative sample of their ethnic subgroup in the state, or even of the college-bound members of their subgroups. ACT test-takers are an entirely self-selected group. Kids have a choice of college entrance tests they can take, and they sign up voluntarily — paying sizable sums of money — for the privilege of taking them.
In Kansas last year, where the ACT is the most popular among the two major college entrance exams, 75 percent of high school seniors took the test, even though only 65 percent of Kansas graduating seniors go on to college. Very few students here take the other major exam, the SAT.
Texas, by contrast, is a predominantly SAT state. Only about 37 percent of graduating seniors there took the ACT test last year, while about 57 percent of Texas' graduating seniors go on to college.
So you cannot say that the average ACT scores of any group of students within a state, or an individual district, reflects the quality of education being delivered to that group, or even the college-bound subset within that group. The numbers just are what they are.
So what's a parent, or taxpayer, to make of all this? I can only offer my purely non-expert advice:
Look at your kid's score, whether its ACT, SAT or anything else. Is it good enough to get into college, or qualify for a scholarship? If so, fine. If not, then turn off the TV, take away the video games, sit down with them and help them study harder. Take some practice exams. Then take the test again.
More Education News
Opponents of the Common Core standards in reading and math haven't given up on their last-minute push to get something through the Kansas Legislature this year.
According to a story earlier today by Scott Rothschild, the Tea Party-affiliated group FreedomWorks sent out a call to its members, urging them to pressure the Legislature into cutting off funds to implement the Common Core.
This comes on the heels of a big anti-Common Core turnout at the Kansas State Board of Education last week where people urged the board to do an about-face on those standards, which are known locally as the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards.
And that came on the heels of a Statehouse rally the week before, just as lawmakers were returning for the wrap-up session.
According to Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker, similar campaigns are being waged in at least 16 other states as well:
In Alabama, at least four anti-Common Core bills have been introduced in the Legislature. At least one bill has been introduced in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah.
Meanwhile, anti-Common Core rallies and forums have been staged in Colorado, Florida and Tennessee.
And in Arizona, Idaho, New Hampshire, New York and Ohio, education officials are reporting other kinds of active anti-Common Core rumblings.
Based on comments made at the state board meeting last week, much of the opposition is based not on the content of the standards, but on a shared perception that the standards represent a form of federal intrusion into state matters.
But when I asked DeBacker about it last week, she said the latest criticism was all a bit frustrating.
On the one hand, she noted, the State Department of Education is constantly targeted for criticism by Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, which uses data based on the old, pre-Common Core standards to show that Kansas has low academic standards compared with other states, never mentioning that the standards have been changed since then to address those very concerns.
And then, when Kansas collaborates with other states to come up with higher educational standards designed to prepare students for college and the workforce in a global marketplace, DeBacker said, they get criticized by other groups who say such collaboration represents "federal intrusion" into state matters.