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Kan. school efficiencies task force begins work

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas school funding task force heard from a policy analyst Monday who said what matters isn't the amount of money spent on K-12 education but how it's spent.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative, free-market research and advocacy group, told members of the task force appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback that spending data and test scores suggest that subtle changes in yearly spending don't greatly affect student achievement.

"Certainly money matters. You can't take it all away," Trabert said. "But simply spending a little less is not going to have an impact on outcomes. Or spending more."

Much of his presentation focused on the amount of money that districts spend each year on instruction, operation costs and capital improvements. He said there were spending differences between large and small districts. But he added that there were also variances between districts of similar size that couldn't readily be explained through only raw budget data.

According to figures provided to the task force, Kansas will spend $5.77 billion on K-12 education this fiscal year, up from $5.59 billion in the previous year. Brownback said in September when he formed the task force that he wanted to see districts hit the goal of putting 65 percent of resources into classroom instruction, arguing that only 15 districts are meeting that goal currently.

Democrats have criticized the absence of teachers and school administrators on the board. They also are concerned that spending on education will be cut in upcoming state budgets as a result of new income tax rates that take effect Jan. 1. State agencies, including education, have been asked by Brownback's administration to prepare budgets with 10 percent reductions.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, had an exchange at the close of his presentation with Steve Anderson, the governor's budget director. Anderson said much of Tallman's presentation on school spending and achievement "flies in the face" of the reality that school districts are suing the state for more money.

A three-judge panel in Shawnee County is deliberating a lawsuit brought by parents and school districts alleging the state has failed to meet its constitutional mandate for education spending based on cuts over the past four years.

Anderson said that data showed that Kansas test scores were at or below other states that spent less per student than Kansas. He asked why, if school boards felt they were spending money efficiently, they were suing for more money.

"We can't have it one way and talk another," he said.

Tallman said the school board association's members collectively believe they are being efficient with tax dollars, but that the districts involved in the lawsuit are concerned that the state isn't providing suitable funding to prepare students for college or the work force. He added that local school boards are elected to make decisions that reflect the wishes of their residents.

"We welcome the accountability," Tallman said. "We're proud of our track record."

The task force also received school budget data and reporting requirements from deputy education commissioner Dale Dennis from the Kansas Department of Education.

State Board of Education member Ken Willard, who heads the task force, said the group should stay away from politics and focus on improving the system. Among the other members are certified public accountants.

"The work we are about to undertake is important not only to the taxpayers but the school children who will be taxpayers," Willard said.

Trabert said schools were no different than private-sector businesses that need ongoing reviews of outcomes.

"Changing that culture is critical," he said.

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