The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter hosted a conversation on school funding with three players in the Kansas education lobby and, much too predictably, contented himself with playing stenographer.

The participants included Annie Mah, a former Democratic state rep, now a member of the Kansas State Board of Education; Mark Tallman, a career lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards; and Mark Desetti, a rep for the teacher’s union, the KNEA. All three welcomed the latest intervention of the State Supreme Court.

The consensus among them was that “the state’s politicians had to sustain the financial commitment to make ongoing improvement in student achievement.” There is, unfortunately, zero factual evidence to suggest that spending more money has ever caused student achievement to improve.

There is, however, ample evidence that spending billions more in Kansas did not result in better outcomes.  Reading proficiency levels on the National Assessment for Educational Progress have remained relatively unchanged since 1998 even though spending has grown much faster than inflation.  The average ACT score is exactly what it was 20 years ago, and just 29 percent of the Kansas kids taking the test were considered college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science.

According to Carpenter, the three were optimistic that the $525 million boost in school spending recently approved by the legislature would produce tangible benefits. “It’s huge,” said Mah. “We’re excited about where the schools are spending the money.”

Had Carpenter done his homework, however, he might have found the Sentinel story showing much larger increases on administration than on instruction in four big districts.  He might have found too that districts like Olathe and Kansas City spend considerably more on administrators and custodians than on teachers.

Tallman made the claim that Kansas public schools had cut about 2,000 staff positions since 2009 despite expanding enrollment. Again, had Carpenter challenged Tallman he might have pointed out that the actual number reduced between 2009 and 2018 was 1,297, considerably less than “about 2000.”

The real story, however, is that 2018 employment is still 5,105 higher than in 2005.  Employment has grown 8 percent since 2005 while reported enrollment increased 7 percent during that period. Then, too, most of that enrollment increase is artificial. Kindergarten students are now counted as full time but were only considered half-time in 2005.

Of the three, union honcho Desetti was the most unmoored from reality. That is not surprising. When last heard from, Desetti greeted Kris Kobach’s victory in the Republican gubernatorial primary with the cheery tweet, “it would appear that the white supremacists are ascendant in Kansas.”

According to Desetti, the alleged teacher shortage in Kansas was caused by the Brownback administration’s “demonizing teachers, reducing their salaries, benefits and job security.” The demonization claim is as outlandish as the white supremacy one.

As to any cuts to teacher salaries, benefits or job security, these were the result of conscious choices made by local school boards, not legislators. As for a “teacher shortage,” there has always been one, at least according to schools.

There is no excuse for the Topeka Capital-Journal allowing its reporter to be used as a tool by the education lobby. And its one-sided reporting is not a fluke.  The Kansas Policy Institute published a scholarly review of the WestEd cost study used to justify the massive spending hike and shared it with the Cap-J.

According to KPI president Dave Trabert, “Our study showed the WestEd author did not follow her own “best practices” on research, and it also explained why cost studies shouldn’t be used to make school funding decisions.  CJ said they would write a story about the findings a few months ago, but we’re still waiting.”

The editors apparently find it more emotionally rewarding–and much easier- to serve as the education lobby stenographer.



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