Your Turn: Changes boost K-12 funding needs

I recently had a conversation with my dad, a retired teacher, and another relative about school funding. We all were in agreement the block grant represents a cut to our state’s K-12 operational funding. However my relative then added: “but I think we spend too much on administration and other support staff.” He reached back to his own school days, with multiple jobs shared among staff, and students helping out with various clerical and custodial duties. It’s part of a perspective shared among many that question whether schools are operating as efficiently as possible, fueled by idealistic memories of their own, or their children’s, academic experiences.

While the past often provides useful insights into contemporary life, using past school models as a template for current operations isn’t prudent. Today’s world is significantly different than it was a generation, or even 10 years ago. New technologies and scientific discoveries pop up with ever-increasing frequency. Our understanding of everything from brain development to climate change to racial inequality is far more complex and nuanced, requiring the redefinition of existing disciplines as well as the addition of new ones, with deeper degrees of specialization. At the same time, individuals with cross-disciplinary expertise are also needed to help navigate our application of all this new research.

So why wouldn’t we expect the world of public education to mirror this increasing complexity? In pre-K through higher ed, we’ve had to add new teaching and staff positions to accommodate these new and redefined disciplines. Ongoing professional development is also required to keep up with our changing understanding of the world and how students learn. And as education staff grow in number and expertise, one would also expect a small level of growth in administration to handle the associated increase in management responsibilities.

However, a recent report (“Long-Term Growth in Instructional and Student Support Employees”) by the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) contradicts this assumption. While there has been an increase in the state’s number of teachers, paraprofessionals and other instructional/student support staff since 1998, there has actually been a decrease in the number of general administration positions (superintendents, clerical staff, etc.). As a state we seem to have done pretty well keeping administration costs low, but potentially so low that efficiency is negatively impacted.

My dad offered a story from his early days of teaching to counter our relative’s statement. He taught at a rural western Kansas high school in a district where the superintendent was also the school’s principal. When the superintendent was absent from the high school (not infrequently), dad was the acting principal. Often he was pulled from class to deal with situations that were sometimes politically charged or sometimes emergencies (such as a student cutting her wrist). He didn’t always feel prepared, and it obviously took away from the students in his classroom — from both a teaching and administrative standpoint he was less efficient.

The evidence indicates we’re not top heavy with K-12 administration. And we likely still lack enough instructional/student support staff as evidenced by the sharing of staff from specials teachers to nurses among schools. Yet the block grant is already forcing districts to cut personnel, and such understaffing will lead to inefficiencies relative to equitable student outcomes per dollar input, making us less competitive as a state. Even accounting for inflation, the cost to educate our students has grown because that’s what it takes to efficiently prepare our students for the world of today, so they may take us to the world of tomorrow.