Tuesday, October 9, 2012

School cuts haven’t made a difference, group told

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

A task force appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback to recommend ways to make school spending more efficient started its work on Monday, hearing from a group that has been a constant critic of how schools spend money.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, told the task force that recent cuts in school funding haven’t made a difference in the academic performance of students.

“Certainly money matters. You can’t take it all away,” Trabert said. “But simply spending a little less is not going to have an impact on outcomes. Or spending more.”

KPI describes itself as “an independent think-tank that advocates for free market solutions and the protection of personal freedom for all Kansans.”

Trabert was scheduled to speak to the task force for two and a half hours.

He was to be followed by Mark Tallman, a lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards, and then Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, who were each allotted one and a half hours.

Brownback appointed the 10-member commission last month, saying, “We need more money in the classroom and less in administration and overhead costs.”

On Monday, the task force heard from Trabert and then broke for lunch in another room. Joined by Trabert, the task force members questioned him further.

Then Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer addressed the task force and reiterated the governor’s position in making schools more efficient.

“This is an issue that is very important to Sam and me,” Colyer said. One of the task force members, Dave Jackson, who is a former Republican state senator from Topeka, said he hoped Brownback would be able to use the task force recommendations.

He said former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, would establish task forces that didn’t “accomplish a thing.”

In setting up the task force, the governor’s office said that only 15 of the state’s 286 school districts complied with a state law that requires at least 65 percent of state funds be spent in the classroom.

But there is no such legal requirement, and school officials released a report that showed based on state funding, all school districts were surpassing the 65 percent level.

Democrats also criticized Brownback, a Republican, for not appointing anyone on the task force who works in a school, such as a teacher, principal, administrator or school finance officer.

The task force is dominated by CPAs, including Brownback’s budget director, Steve Anderson. Brownback has said he wanted financial experts to look at school finance.

With state revenue expected to be tight because of the massive tax cut signed into law by Brownback, and the fact that public school finance makes up half of the state budget, supporters of school funding have been fearful of what will happen to school budgets in the next legislative session.

At the outset of the task force meeting, Chairman Ken Willard, a Republican from Hutchinson, said he realized the panel would be working in a political environment, but he said he would do his best “to see we are not distracted by politics.”

He also said that some have said the objective of the task force was to recommend a cut in school funding.

But, Willard said, reducing the state’s commitment to education “is not our purpose.”

Meanwhile, in a separate news conference, House Appropriations Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, said two school reforms that will probably be considered next session include legislation making major changes to teacher tenure and vouchers that would allow tax dollars or tax credits to be used to send students to private and parochial schools.

Of school vouchers, Rhoades said, “It’s like a tidal wave that is coming. A lot of parents love that.”