By Liz Metl for the Kansas Reflector
On Wednesday, the House K-12 Education Budget Committee passed a massive voucher bill that, if enacted into law, would gut the state’s public education system.
Before the vote, lawmakers entertained a Georgia economist, Ben Scafidi, a big name in the national “school choice” crusade, who delighted the committee with a long story about why he thinks Kansas schools are failing. Aside from the obvious problems involved in paying an out-of-state guy to tell us about our numbers, the presentation was full of problems.
Specifically, it was not true.
Readers of Reflector’s opinion section will be familiar with the standard, but nonetheless compelling case for keeping coupons out of Kansas: states that implement coupons have reduced student performance, the current push for coupons is part of a persistent historic effort to keep schools segregated, and the vast majority of K-12 parents are satisfied with their children’s education.
But let’s act as if we were approaching this discussion with fresh eyes. What did Scafidi fly here to tell us, and was there anything of value?
He had two main points: Kansas is irresponsibly spending more and more money in public schools, and our test scores are bad. Let’s deal with each of them.
Scafidi’s first slides were about total spending per student. He said Kansas increased spending per student from 2003 to 2020 by 25%. This is a total misrepresentation of district budgets.
What it did was take a bunch of different types of money (local, state, federal, and non-Covid-19 funds) that are being spent on a bunch of different things (like food, transportation, and insurance) and put it all into one big pile, and then compare that pile to spending in 2003.
It’s such a messy equation as to be pointless, but in a classic conservative move he made it seem like it was all about administrator salaries.
This talking point is exhausting. School systems are under massive state and federal oversight and require a tremendous amount of administration. No one is keen on it, trust me. No one in any school district dabbles in hiring someone to process Medicaid payments full-time for students in need of services instead of hiring someone to actually provide those services, but we have to. It is required by law.
More importantly, however, is the irony of Scafidi’s testimony. He has spent a significant amount of time berating Kansas public schools for the administrative bloat that he “discovered” using the Kansas Department of Education website.
Not only is this a total misrepresentation of spending (see the Kansas Association of School Boards report), but going forward, if we want to see how our public tuition money is spent in schools and what the breakdown is by type of expense, we won’t have a way of doing that because private schools don’t have to tell us. He hammered a false point by exploiting a transparency system that he would like us to eliminate in the wake of the implementation of this bill.
Let’s look at the real numbers. We do effective basic state aid per pupil.
I’ll start in 2003 because it did, but I’ll go through to the current year because…truth.
The basic state aid for each student in 2003? $3,863. Basic state aid for every student in 2022? $4,846.
That’s a 19% decrease when adjusted for inflation (using the US Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI calculator).
We are spending less per student than in 2003
But wait! There is more hypocrisy. The legislation’s tax memo reports that the administrative costs of implementing the bill will have a “cost of $111,658 per employee” in wages and benefits and an additional $11,560 per employee in office costs.
According to the document, if only current private school students are participating in the program and our state’s staff is similar to Arizona’s (a favorite of Scafidi’s), the program will require at least 14 staff to be hired immediately, to a total minimum administrative cost of $1,725,052 per year.
This total does not include any software and technical development costs. In short, the voucher program will not eliminate any administrative costs from public schools (vouchers cut funding, not regulations, for real public schools), but it will significantly increase statewide administrative costs by millions and millions of dollars.
Now let’s look at test scores.
Scafidi made a big show talking about how bad Kansas kids are doing in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the NAEP. First of all, let’s not go wrong with the NAEP. Our scores have dropped in recent years because our funding has declined. This is just a national educational reality. Standardized test scores reflect parental income and state spending on education.
But most of all it has tried to compare us unfavorably with Arizona and Florida, two states that have implemented large-scale voucher programs. Again, he used data from 2003 and 2019, which is strange, because 2022 data is available. Those years are not accidental, of course. She selected and manipulated the numbers to tell an imaginary story of Kansas’ educational decay. Here are some truths: The most up-to-date score comparison, which you can easily view on the NAEP website.
As you can see, Kansas could do better, but we’re not in a deep, dark educational wasteland as some Republican lawmakers would have you believe.
It should also be noted that Florida has a legal requirement that any 3rd grade student who does not achieve a “proficient” level on a state test be retained and not promoted to 4th grade. This can significantly help test scores, but be detrimental to children’s mental well-being and overall safety.
In short, we don’t need to be saved by ourselves, financially or academically. Kansas public schools are on track. The Gannon decision puts us on the path to restoring funding, Governor Kelly’s budget will fully fund special education, and our public school students and teachers are among the best in the world.
Extended voucher programs will only hurt us. And this is the truth.
Liz Meitl is a $500 public school teacher and her two children attend public schools in Kansas. Through her opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are influenced by public policy or excluded from public debate.