Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Student performance drops amid budget cuts

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

On the heels of budget cuts, student performance on statewide reading and math tests dropped for the first time since 2001, education officials reported Tuesday. History and science scores dropped too.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Board, said the decline was directly linked to cuts in state funding to schools.

"In our view, you put in targeted resources you get some good results. You have to withdraw some of those resources, and you start falling back," Tallman said.

But Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said it was difficult to determine the cause of the decline.

" … we do know that having moved so many of our students to and beyond grade level performance, Kansas educators are now engaged in the difficult work of moving our most challenged students into higher levels of performance."

The percentage of students in the top three performance levels — exemplary, exceeds standards and meets standards — in reading dropped 1.9 percentage points from 2011 to 85.7 percent.

On the math test, students in the top three levels dropped one percentage point to 83.7 percent.

These were the first annual decreases since the federal No Child Left Behind law took effect in 2001. The law requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

However, the Obama administration has given waivers to 30 states, including Kansas, which grants more flexibility.

Student performance also declined in science, which is tested in grades four, seven and once in high school. History tests were given for the first time since 2008, and those also showed decline.

The 2012 Kansas Report Card was presented Tuesday to the State Board of Education. Several members noted the declining results came after cuts to schools.

Tallman agreed, saying scores increased when the Legislature was increasing school spending.

"It's really pretty straightforward," he said. "Districts used the increased funding for specific things. They hired more people, they added more programs, they added all-day kindergarten, they added summer school, they added after school programs.

"When you have to cut the base budget and you have to cut your general fund budget, those are exactly where you have to take the dollars away from," he said.

Base state aid was $4,400 per student in the 2008-09 school year and fell to $3,780 per student after several rounds of budget cuts during the recession. The current school year level is $3,838 per student.

A lawsuit filed by several school district says the cuts to schools are unconstitutional. That case is pending before a three-judge panel. And critics of tax cuts recently signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback say the cuts will make it difficult to increase school funding.

During Tuesday's board meeting, the board also recommended 10 percent budget cuts to the Kansas State School for the Deaf and the Kansas State School for the Blind.

Several board members said the proposed cuts, if enacted, would devastate the schools, but those who voted for the recommendation said they were abiding by a budget directive from Brownback's office to come up with ways to reduce spending.