By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE — State assessment scores for Kansas students released earlier this week marked the first decline in 11 years, and while educators blame recent funding cuts, some state officials argue more money doesn’t necessarily add up to a better education.
The Kansas Department of Education announced Tuesday that statewide assessment scores dipped across the board. The number of students scoring in the top three reading levels — exemplary, exceeds standard and meets standard — declined 1.3 percent to 85.7 percent overall. Math scores saw a similar decrease of 1 percent, to 83.7 percent overall. Science, as well as history and government, also saw declines.
At this point, where to place blame is anybody’s guess.
“You’re asking the million dollar question,” said Brad Neuenswander, Kansas Department of Education deputy commissioner.
He said it’s hard to say whether budget cuts played a role in the decreased scores.
“It takes time to see any initiative really see growth, and it also takes time to see decline,” he said. “We’ve never had any history where we’ve had cuts like this and to know how many years it will take for it to take effect.”
Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, says the recent assessment scores were inevitable, and the decline wasn’t the result of legislative funding reductions.
“It was obvious the growth in the scores over time was going to level off at some point,” Aurand said. “There’s only so much you can do.”
“I tend to think that people pay too much attention year to year to the score,” he added. “My hunch is that in some cases, obviously there have been cutbacks on the margins that could have hurt some scores some places, but I think if you look long-term at the budget cuts that have come in the past, it’s hard to believe all of a sudden it’s the budget cuts’ fault.”
But Peg Dunlap, director of Instructional Advocacy for the Kansas National Education Association, places blame for the scores squarely in the hands of state legislators.
“I think it reflects the results of several years in a row of budget cuts and the fact that the neediest students are increasing in numbers at a time when the resources needed to help them have decreased,” Dunlap said. “I think the state needs to look seriously at the money that is available to provide services to kids through schools and make sure that it’s sufficient to meet the increasing challenges.”
Dunlap said while it doesn’t hold true for every school district in the state, the only way to fix the issue for some is an increase in funding.
Neuenswander wouldn’t rule out the funding matter entirely, and said it’s just one of many factors playing a part in shaping Kansas public education.
But Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell took a hardline approach to the issue. Chappell contends public schools receive adequate money from state, federal and local source but choose to allocate their expenses outside the classroom.
“Budget cuts have nothing to do with it,” Chappell said. “The fact is that we’ve increased the funding for schools $2.5 billion in the last 10 years.”
While Kansas’ Base State Aid per Pupil funding rate has decreased from $4,492 to $3,838 the past three years, proponents against increased education spending say it doesn’t paint the entire picture. In the past decade, spending per student has increased by about $4,000, to $12,454.
“(Schools have) got plenty of money for sports. If they want a new football field, or weight room or press box … we get one report after another, ‘We need another bond issue to pay for those things,’” Chappell added. “I’ve yet to see a bond issue for a new technology education complex to teach kids employable skills.”
Kansas is embroiled in a legal battle over $511 million cuts to state education funding since 2009. A coalition of 54 public schools, called Schools for Fair Funding, is seeking $1.5 billion it says the state has wrongfully withheld from Kansas schools. A special three-judge panel is expected to rule on the case sometime before November.