Mark Twain said there are three kinds of lies: lie, damned lies, and statistics. You may have heard recently some lobbyists, legislators, or television commercials offering statistics claiming that spending on Kansas public schools has actually gone up over the past few years and school districts have $700 million in reserves to deal with budget cuts. The statistics they cite are, at best, partial truths.
For example, in 2005, the state legislature mandated that, instead of sending school KPERS money directly to KPERS, it would first be wired to school districts and then immediately be re-wired to KPERS. That's about $250 million that shows up on school district budgets. At the time, the majority in the legislature said they wanted to show what the actual expenses of education were. The fact that schools can't actually educate children with the money apparently makes no difference. Increases to KPERS are counted as increases to education and, since the legislature has been borrowing from KPERS and must soon pay it back, this statistical red herring will undoubtedly continue.
And, funding statistics include state-wide funding for new school buildings, which is called Bond and Interest. While it's true that the state is spending more money on recent bond issues in some school districts, it is funding for operating costs like salaries, utilities, fuel, food, and insurance that is being cut.
It would be more honest to cite statistics that relate to the General fund, which is the primary fund for operating expenses. That fund decreased 6.9% from last year to this year. According to KSDE, even when you include funding increases from KPERS, Bond and Interest, Local Option Budget, and federal funds the amount of funding to Kansas schools still decreased 3.2% from last year to this year. Meanwhile, schools have more students, more at-risk students, and higher student achievement requirements than ever before.
The other thing we hear a lot about is how school districts have $700 million sitting around in reserves. Various funds must have cash balances because, even in good economic times, money often goes out faster than it comes in. The Special Education Fund in particular must have a healthy balance (about $225 million this year) because school districts don't receive a penny of special education funding until three and half months after the fiscal year starts.
Lately many school districts have need cash balances just to make payroll due to state cash flow problems and late funding payments. Saying that these cash balances can take are of funding cuts is like saying you can absorb a pay cut from your job right after you've been paid because your mortgage and car loan haven't been deducted from your checking account yet.
The Contingency Fund (rainy day fund) is the fprimary reserve fund but that money can only be used once. For the past two years, school funding has been cut during the school year after the vast majority of school funding is contractually committed. That's why it's important to have contingency money available. For school districts, keeping no reserve and, when bad times hit, telling parents we're sorry but there isn't any money to suitably educate their children isn't an option.
Last year year, the legislature passed a law raising the limit of how much money school districts can put into their Contingency Fund to encourage school districts to cut spending ad transfer savings there. They knew more mid-year cuts were likely to come. Now, some legislators and others are pointing to that money as a reason why school districts can handle more cuts. Wow.
Are Kansans really naive enough to believe that school districts are closing schools and laying off thousands of teachers and other employees even though we have more money than ever and just want to hoard our huge reserves? Some politicians and some people paying for television commercials are hoping so. Instead of political spin, we need an honest discussion about what's going on so we can reach informed solutions.
Education is the best-perhaps only-solution to ignorance, intolerance, and poverty. It's also the only way to ensure the continued success of democracy. Without public education, the quality of a child's education would be based on the wealth of his or her parents. That's why the state's Founding Fathers made public education a required state expenditure in the Kansas Constitution. If we're going to imperil their vision and our children's education we should do so while understanding the whole truth.