by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
October 10, 2023
TOPEKA — Hiring of experienced, better-paid teachers and targeted spending to secure quality administrative leadership in K-12 public schools were important factors in raising the percentage of students meeting state academic standards, a new legislative audit said Tuesday.
The report from the Kansas Legislature’s auditing division said modeling that took into account 70 factors of potential influence on student assessment success indicated simplistic, across-the-board increases in expenditures on education were unlikely to significantly improve outcomes.
“Spending matters, but not all spending has the same impact on students,” said auditor Heidi Zimmerman. “It is likely that strategies beyond just spending more money are needed to give Kansas schoolchildren the best chance at academic success.”
Members of the Legislature and rival special-interest groups have engaged in years of legal, ideological and political battles over questions of the relationship between taxpayer spending and educational outcomes in public schools. In 2022, Kansas school districts received $7.9 billion in funding from local, state and federal sources. Auditors said that amounted to an inflation-adjusted increase of 17% from 2017.
From 2017 to 2022, enrollment in Kansas public schools declined 2% from 490,000 to 480,000. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to enrollment changes, auditors said. Over the five-year period, the number of students who qualified for a free lunch programs fell by 31,000, the number of students in special education programs grew by 4,000 and the number of school district employees climbed by 5,000 to 73,000.
Auditor said about one-third of students met state academic standards on required assessments of English, math and science proficiency. On a scale of 1 to 4, for purposes of the audit, students earning scores of 3 or 4 on the tests met the standard.
The portion of students achieving those levels declined from 2017 to 2022. auditors said. The five-year slide: English, down from 39% to 32%; science, down from 39% to 31%; and math, down from 35% to 30%. Students didn’t take standardized tests in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“It is unlikely that all students will meet state standards even if provided the opportunity to do so,” Zimmerman said. “Not all students have the same academic abilities, motivation or support at home to do well in school.”
Sen. Mike Thompson, a Johnson County Republican and retired television weather forecaster, said years of work with computer modeling showed findings were only as good as assumptions made about K-12 education.
“The reality is spending has gone up, performance has gone down,” Thompson said. “We keep spending more and more and more money, but we’re not examining what is actually being taught. That is going to be the crucial factor. If we’re going to examine increasing one thin dime of funding, we have to be sure that what we’re doing is going to work. That means examining everything. Why aren’t we able to teach kids math, English and science?”
Democratic Sen. Ethan Corson, who also serves on the Legislature’s auditing committee, said the report was insightful in terms of affirming importance of how money was spent on education. The Johnson County lawmaker said decisions about allocation of state education funding were the province of local school boards and school district administrators scattered across the state rather than legislators sitting in the Capitol.
“I’m kind of struggling to figure out what is the Legislature’s piece,” he said. “A lot of the decisions that you’re talking about that do have an impact on students’ achievement are really made by your local school districts. That seems like where the rubber is hitting the road.”
Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, said the model relied upon by auditors correctly affirmed that employing skilled, quality teachers had a bigger impact than flooding classrooms with inexperienced teachers or paraprofessionals. Teacher quality ranked behind parental education attainment in terms of student success, Williams.
She also pointed to a previous audit that indicated school districts didn’t adhere to the Legislature’s directives and spent money designated for at-risk students on other priorities. In terms of those at-risk students, she said, “we saw clearly more money didn’t result in better gains.”
The audit said analysts decided to rely on a logistic regression model to predict odds of a educational outcomes. The idea was to estimate the probability increased spending would improve student achievement on state assessments. The model raised expenditures in 3% increments up to 15% to measure results.
The examination was based on expenditure data and student assessment scores from 2017 to 2022. The model incorporated demographic information from the U.S. Census, incarceration data from the Kansas Department of Corrections and student data from the Kansas State Department of Education.
Zimmerman said a targeted 15% increase in per-student spending was shown to be associated with “moderate to significant improvements in the number of students who met state standards.” For all students, the model said, that increase in funding raised by 17% the number who would meet state standards. Of significance, the number of disadvantaged students who would be expected to achieve state standards climbed 43% with that infusion of resources.
“Across-the-board spending increases were associated with almost no increase in the percentage of students who met state standards,” she said.
The audit indicated specific factors were associated with better student outcomes such as teacher pay and administrative spending. The idea was that heightened compensation attracted or retained the most experienced educators, the audit said. Meanwhile, the auditors’ model said administrative spending that improved the quality of leadership in school buildings or school districts would have a positive impact on student achievement.
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: email@example.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.