Friday, February 7, 2014

Link between school funding, performance debated

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — The state's top education official and the leader of a conservative think tank gave opposing views today about how well Kansas schools are performing and whether there is any connection between performance and the funding schools receive.

Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker and Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert testified side by side before a joint meeting of the Kansas House and Senate education committees.

DeBacker pointed to scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, to show that, overall, Kansas ranks high compared with other states in student performance in reading and math.

Last year, for example, she noted that Kansas ranked 11th in the nation in fourth-grade math scores and 12th in the nation in eighth-grade math.

And since 2003, she noted, Kansas has reduced the percentage of students scoring "below basic" on those tests while increasing the number scoring at the "basic" and "proficient" levels.

At the same time, however, DeBacker said the state's rankings last year were the lowest the state has achieved in a decade, and they occurred in the year when schools received the lowest amount of base funding from the state over that period: $3,838 per pupil.

"We have not studied that," DeBacker cautioned, saying it would take more analysis to determine how much of the change in rankings was caused by reduced state funding.

Trabert, however, said the overall scores for Kansas do not tell the whole story because there are wide gaps in achievement levels between students of different racial and economic backgrounds.

"We really have a two-tiered education system in Kansas," Trabert said. "More money is not the answer."

The exchange occurred as lawmakers and education officials await a Kansas Supreme Court decision in a school finance lawsuit that could force the Legislature to increase school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

A trial court ruled last year that current funding levels violate the state constitutional requirement that the Legislature make "suitable provision" for financing the educational interests of the state.