Kobach’s 75 percent classroom spending plan hard to achieve
Governor candidate Kris Kobach’s proposal to shift 75 percent of school funding to classrooms plays to rave reviews from his Republican base on the campaign trail, but education experts say it would be difficult to impossible to implement.
The main reason is that statewide, more than 25 percent of total school funding is locked up in federal grants for specific purposes, building funds that can’t be used for anything else by law, or payments like utility bills that have to be made, according to experts and an Eagle analysis of the breakdown of school funding.
Kobach hasn’t offered specifics about how he would get to his 75 percent in the classroom goal.
He has said he would start with cuts in administration and building spending.
“The number of administrators in the last 25 years has gone up 40 percent in Kansas, but the number of teachers has gone up 17 percent, so there’s been a massive increase in administrative positions,” Kobach said. “That’s why you have two schools in Wichita with five assistant principals each. That’s why you have buildings like the crystal palace in the ShawneeMission school district that looks like a corporate headquarters and it’s their administrative center.”
Goddard school Superintendent Justin Henry said there’s no way to get classroom spending up to 75 percent of total spending just by cutting and shifting funds around.
“We did two community meetings last week about this very topic,” Henry said. “If the statement is 75 percent of all of your expenditures should be for teacher salaries and benefits, I think it’s impossible to get the math to work without dramatically increasing the overall spend to schools, so you can increase proportionally the teacher salaries to get it up to 75 percent of your total budget.
“One of our core beliefs is recruiting and retaining world-class teaching staff,” he said. “But realistically, you have other bills you have to pay, and the math doesn’t work.”
Susan Willis, chief financial officer of the Wichita school district, said meeting a 75 percent threshold on direct classroom spending might be barely possible but would require devastating cuts from areas that are critical to student success.
“Nurses, custodians, social workers, paras, librarians, school-based administration, even basic utility costs, which are 4 percent of our budget, are not considered ‘instruction’ and would have to be part of a cut conversation to get to 75 percent instruction,” she said. “There simply aren’t enough other central office expenses to cut to get to 75 percent instruction (with) restricted funds accounting for almost 20 percent of our budget.”
Kobach’s plan is an expansion of what used to be called the 65 Percent Solution, an idea popular in some conservative circles 10 to 15 years ago. It promoted requiring schools to spend 65 percent of their operational funding on classroom expenses.
The idea was proposed by a Republican political consultant running a group called First Class Education and funded by Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne.
The Kansas Legislature considered adopting the 65 Percent Solution as a mandate, but ultimately settled on making it a nonbinding guideline in 2005.
Nationally, interest in the 65 Percent Solution waned after a Standard & Poor’s study and others found no significant correlation between the percentage spent on instruction and student achievement.
First Class Education’s website went inactive in 2009 and is now a placeholder page advertising online college programs.
Kobach’s plan not only adds an additional 10 percent to the 65 percent goal, it also includes capital expenses and bondand-interest payment in the mix, making it even harder to achieve.
Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner of education for the state, said there are several key areas in school budgets that can’t be shifted to instruction, including:
Bond and interest payments: These expenditures are to pay off the cost of borrowing money to build new school buildings. The state and school districts could conceivably default on the bonds, but the districts would lose the buildings and “somebody else takes over the facility,” Dennis said.
That accounts for 8.8 percent of overall school funding statewide.
Capital expense: This is the money that comes from local bond issues to pay for new buildings, major building repairs, new equipment and buses. When voters approve a school bond, the money can only be spent for the purpose for which it was approved.
That’s 6.3 percent of
Food: More than 90 percent of the budget for food service comes from two sources: the federal government and the money students and teachers pay for their meals. If a district tried to shift that money to instruction, the federal government wouldn’t send the money to buy food and nobody would pay for lunches they don’t get.
That’s 3.9 percent of school spending.
Maintenance and operations: This line item pays for cleaning, repairs and utilities. While some maintenance could be deferred, about one-third of it is utility bills that have to be paid if schools want to keep the heat and lights on.
Overall, that’s 7.4 percent of school funding. Utility costs alone would be roughly 2.5 percent, Dennis said.
Student support: This includes social workers, counselors, school nurses, psychologists, speech pathologists and the costs of attendance-record keeping. Nearly all of these expenditures are required by federal law to meet specialeducation requirements, Dennis said.
That makes up 4.8 percent of school funding.
Transportation: This is the cost of busing children to and from school. State law requires districts to provide students with transportation if they live more than 2.5 miles from the nearest school.
The state could change that, but “as a practical matter, if you don’t haul kids who live out in the rural areas, your attendance rate’s going to go down. It’s a flat fact,” Dennis said. “We have a lot of poor people who live in rural areas that if you didn’t transport their kids, I’m afraid they wouldn’t be there a lot of times.”
Transportation is 3.5 percent of spending.
Put together, the can’ttouch expenditures total up to 29.8 percent of current school spending statewide, records show.
That leaves two areas of the budget where spending is mostly discretionary and funds could be moved over to instruction.
The largest of those categories is administration. This includes money to pay for superintendents and principals and their office staffs, along with school board expenses.
That’s 9.1 percent of school spending statewide.
You couldn’t move it all to the classroom, because state law requires every school district have a superintendent. Some of the smaller districts get by with a part-time superintendent who splits time as a principal or teacher, Dennis said.
The other discretionary line item is staff support. This includes costs for media, libraries and librarians, audio-visual, television, computer–assisted instruction, curriculum development and teacher training.
That’s 3.3 percent of the budget.
If the state shifted all its administrative and staff support spending to classroom instruction, it would raise the classroom spending percentage to 65.1 percent. If you added in all building maintenance money except for utility bills, it would still barely reach 70 percent.
Kobach said he derived the numbers behind his plan from postings on the website of the Kansas Policy Institute, a freemarket conservative think tank.
KPI got the numbers from a state report and pegs classroom spending at 52.7 percent, the number Kobach quotes in his speeches.
KPI is a leading critic of public school spending and supports using public funds to help pay costs of parents who choose to send their children to private schools.
KPI hasn’t specifically embraced Kobach’s 75 percent plan but agrees with him that schools could and should be run more efficiently, said
Dave Trabert, president of the organization.
“In terms of how you could shift more money to instruction, there’s lots of ways other than just giving schools another bonanza which isn’t needed,” Trabert said. “They’re operating pretty inefficiently in a lot of ways.”
He said districts across the state could consolidate functions such as human resources, purchasing, transportation and food service through regional service centers and save money by economy of scale. Schools could also stop buying supplies from local stores, where they pay full retail prices, he said.
“It’s interesting when you talk to school superintendents, it seems like the only solution is ‘We have to cut programs, and they never want to talk about reducing the excess cost of those programs, or (the alternative is) give us a lot more money,” he said.
‘PICK A NUMBER’
Kobach has left himself some wiggle room on the 75 percent goal.
He said he might ask the Legislature to redefine what counts as classroom spending, turning away from federal definitions used by every school district in the nation in reports to the federal government.
That could increase the percentage of “in the classroom” funding without actually changing spending.
That would be welcome news to educators, who have bitterly complained for more than a decade that costs for student support, building maintenance and other line items directly affecting the students aren’t counted as classroom spending.
Under the federal definition, Wichita’s spending on classroom instruction is 49 percent, Willis said.
But if you count up everything affecting students, the district meets Kobach’s 75 percent threshold and then some, she said.
“We would put forth that going directly to the classroom, we’re already there,” she said. “We would argue that we’re spending almost 88 cents of every dollar to support classroom instruction, whether directly through a teacher, or through support services, nurses, counselors, social workers, paras, transportation, nutrition services.”
Wichita spends 1 percent on its central administration and 11 percent on site administration, Willis said.
Kobach left open the possibility of walking back his 75 percent goal if it turns out to be unattainable.
“If the Legislature looks at it and says ‘Here’s how we want to define classroom and here’s how we want to define administrative,’ and the way we look at it we don’t see how a school can reasonably get above 70, well 70 can be the number they arrive on,” Kobach said. “But we need to pick a number, and again, it’s all based on the definition of what you count as classroom instruction. Pick a number that is significantly higher than where we are right now that the schools can reach, because right now they’re not reaching it.”
Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas
Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach says he would dedicate 75 percent of school funds to the classroom.