Monday, January 27, 2014

Davis exaggerated impact of education cuts, critic’s point also partly inaccurate

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

LAWRENCE, KAN. ----- A Republican member of the Kansas State Board of Education fired back this week at claims that Lawrence Rep. Paul Davis made recently about the impact that state budget cuts have had on public schools.

Davis, the Kansas House minority leader and presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, said in a televised response to Gov. Sam Brownback's State of the State address that "public school class sizes are growing (and) teachers have been laid off by the thousands."

But Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican who serves on the state board, issued a statement this week saying, "Information available to the public on the KSDE website shows a very different picture."

And while official state data on the website does indeed paint a different picture, Willard's characterization of those data was only partially accurate and, according to some, a bit misleading.

"The fact is that while student numbers have been increasing, the number of teachers has also increased over the past three years, resulting in a declining teacher-student ratio," Willard said.

Class size vs. ratios

Actually, according to the state's official data, during the 2010-2011 school year, there were 13.5 "students" for every "teacher" in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade classes in Kansas. Brownback assumed office in January 2011.

The following year — the first full year of Brownback's administration — the ratio went up to 15.1 students per teacher and has remained at that level ever since.

But education officials were quick to point out that Davis and Willard are actually using two different measurements that don't necessarily correspond to each other.

"Those are not the same thing," Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll said when asked about the dispute between class sizes and student-teacher ratios.

That's because the state doesn't just count classroom teachers, but also music, physical education and art teachers in addition to regular classroom teachers.

Thus, a classroom teacher may have 30 students in his or her class, but if those students also receive music, PE and art during the week, the state would count that as four teachers, producing a ratio of 7.5 students per teacher in that classroom.

Furthermore, while the statewide average student-teacher ratio is higher than it was, the trend has not been uniform across the state.

In Lawrence, Doll noted, the district increased class sizes after the first round of major cuts in 2011-2012, but has since taken efforts to reduce them, especially in high-poverty schools such as New York, Kennedy and Pinckney.

Part of that was made possible by enrollment growth, which resulted in more state aid. But the district has also shifted resources and dipped into cash reserves to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes.

Teacher layoffs and employment

Haley Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Davis campaign, said the statements were based on figures they received from the Kansas State Department of Education, which showed 1,200 fewer "regular classroom teachers" than there were before the recession began. Over the same time, she said, KSDE is reporting roughly 12,000 more students.

The recession, however, began in the fall of 2008, more than two years before Brownback took office in January 2011.

According to state reports, the total number of teachers employed in Kansas schools has grown slightly since Brownback took office — from 34,074.8 in his first full year to 34,772.8 this year. But that is still below the pre-recession number of 34,978.8 during the 2008-2009 school year.

The largest declines occurred during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years, when Democrat Mark Parkinson was governor. The size of the teacher workforce in Kansas dropped by 483 the first year and 679 the second year.

That, however, does not mean that all the teachers who left employment were necessarily laid off, as Davis suggested in his State of the State response.

In fact, according to the state's most recent Licensed Personnel Report, which tracks employment trends in public schools, from 2010 through 2013, only 811 teachers left their jobs because of a "reduction in force."

Over the same period, though, the number of teachers leaving the profession each year has nearly doubled, from 356 to 669. And the number of teachers retiring each year has also doubled, from 1,028 to 2,084.