Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Education spending

Two studies ordered by the legislature and a court case have all held that the state of Kansas spends too little on special education and certain at-risk students, especially those living in urban poverty. (The Supreme Court wrote that "In particular, the plaintiff school districts … established that the SDFQPA fails to provide adequate funding for a suitable education for students … middle- and large-sized districts with a high proportion of minority and/or at-risk and special education students.") This is why the legislature is scrambling to find additional funding for education.

That background is valuable in reading Tim Burger's take on school funding proposals moving the through the legislature:
One thing is clear, this education plan will spend much, much more on certain targeted students than it will on improving the quality of education for average Kansas students or increasing the pay of teachers who serve those students. Not only do special education and at risk programs each receive a more than twice the total amount that goes to basic state aid over three years, they also serve much fewer students, making the funding disparity even more striking.

Is this the way we should fund education, spending many times more on students with special needs rather than on focusing on increasing teacher pay and the education that the average student receives?
If all parts of the educational system were equally underfunded, this would be an inequitable way to resolve the problem.

But all parts of the system are not equally underfunded and the proposal adds more money to the parts of the system that are actually underfunded.

If you look at the Legislative Post Audit study, summarized at TfK, it basically found that the current spending levels for regular education is about what's necessary. The shortfall is entirely driven by inadequate funding in special ed and at-risk students. The study called for at least $316 million more:

The additional costs associated with students in poverty accounted for at least $238 million of the estimated increases in foundation-level funding. … The costs we project for students in poverty are much higher than under the current formula because the weights developed using the outcomes-based approach were substantially higher than the current poverty weight. We also added an urban-poverty weight to account for significantly higher costs in high-poverty, inner-city districts.

The additional costs associated with Special Education accounted for about $75 million of the estimated increases in foundation-level funding. That’s because the current Special Education funding formula significantly overstates the amount of regular education costs districts realistically could avoid or save when students are receiving Special Education services.
$238 million + $75 million = $313. Throw in $41 million more for larger school districts which require more teachers, and you have most of the increase in funding accounted for. And since "increases in base-level costs generally are offset by decreases in the costs associated with the enrollment weights," the rest of the problem the legislature is dealing with requires realigning spending, and one measure actually says that spending could decrease (because the older set of standards for testing were insufficient).

In other words, the funding proposals are supposed to focus on special ed and at-risk students. That isn't a bug, it's a feature.

And this all makes sense. Kansas students tend to do well in comparison with other states. It would be counterintuitive to insist that the average Kansas school was not educating children. But there are people with special needs who are falling through the cracks, and those problems have to be addressed.