Has Kansas classroom funding gone up or down? Gov. candidates use different definitions

EDITOR’S NOTE: As candidates for national office seek to tout cost-cutting credentials while still promising new programs to would-be voters, education spending is an increasingly pivotal issue in several races. From Kansas Public Radio, Stephen Koranda reports on how this battle is unfolding in the Sunflower State in a heated governor’s race. Both candidates, Republican incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback and Democratic challenger Paul Davis, are using Brownback’s spending record to make their cases, raising questions of what, exactly, constitutes a “classroom cost.”

If you tuned in to the debate at the Kansas State Fair, you would have heard many references to schools and education funding. The two main candidates talk about it a lot, but they are sending very different messages.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback repeats that education funding is up under his watch. “We have put a record amount of money in K-12 education and we’re going to continue to spend and spend aggressively for K-12 education in the state of Kansas. We put about 52 percent of our budget in it,” said Brownback.

But Democratic challenger Paul Davis paints a much different picture of school funding during Brownback’s tenure, pointing to a cut to the base state aid per pupil early in Brownback’s term. That’s one of the big components of classroom spending.

“That’s why I oppose Gov. Brownback’s single largest cut to public school funding in state history. That’s why I will make restoring those cuts my very top priority as governor,” said Davis.

So which is correct? It turns out both candidates can back up their claims with numbers. It all comes down to your definition of education spending, and what that definition includes.

The Kansas Policy Institute is a think tank that studies issues like education and advocates a low-tax, pro-business growth environment. Dave Trabert, president of KPI, says whether you look at the entire package of education funding or just classroom spending, funding is up in Kansas.

“We’re setting records. We’re going to spend over $6 billion on public education this school year. That’s a lot of money, over $13,000 per kid,” says Trabert.

Trabert wants to see more focus on how efficiently schools spend the money they have. Trabert’s figures include all spending related to education, including teacher pensions, building funding and other costs. That’s also what Gov. Brownback references. Several years ago, Kansas increased funding for the state pension plan, KPERS, and there’s a disagreement over whether that money should be counted.

“KPERS has to count, just like teacher salaries have to count, and teacher health care,” says Trabert.

Sometimes in the past, KPERS money was not counted as education spending. Trabert says that’s a mistake. He points out that the Kansas Supreme Court said in a recent ruling that the public needs to take a more holistic view of education spending.

“It’s all part of the compensation. It all goes into the classroom in one way or another,” says Trabert.

Some people take a different view. Mark Tallman, with the Kansas Association of School Boards, says they’re happy KPERS funding is up, but he says that money doesn’t really help schools meet classroom needs.

“It’s doing something important, it’s part of funding, but to say ‘Well, money went up there, so you shouldn’t have to worry about classroom expenses,’ that breaks down,” says Mark Tallman.

He says when you take out things like KPERS, some building funding and certain other spending you can get a better idea of classroom funding. When you add up classroom spending from the state, local taxes and the federal government, many schools are still in a tight spot.

Tallman says under that measure, total classroom funding in Kansas is up since 2009. It dipped during the recession, but now it has topped the 2009 number. But if you adjust for inflation, classroom funding is down by a big chunk since 2009 — by hundreds of million of dollars.

“We think that’s important because districts of course, like everyone, do experience increases in their costs. And that’s why districts continue to talk about funding being down or funding cuts, even though total dollars certainly have increased,” says Tallman.

People who are closely watching the election are not surprised to see school funding taking a front-row in the discussion. Michael Smith is a political science professor at Emporia State University.

“So we’re talking about something that’s a huge chunk of the state budget. And we’re also talking about something that the voters can feel in their own communities,” says Smith.

Smith says the issue is complex enough that you can look at it in different ways and reach different conclusions. That’s why voters will continue to hear different messages about education funding until Election Day.