Education officials, lobbyists weigh impact of funding on academic achievement in Kansas

By: - November 30, 2021 2:59 pm

The education department’s Brad Neuenswander said increased funding for public school instruction has led to improved post-secondary successes, higher graduation rates and a narrowing proficiency gap among at-risk students. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — State education officials and lobbyists clashed Tuesday in a debate over whether improved school finance creates positive trends in Kansas student achievement.

As a product of the Gannon lawsuit and legislation approved by the Legislature and the governor earlier this year, Kansas is currently fully funding the state’s 286 local public school districts at an annual rate of $5.2 billion. Education advocates argued the law meets the needs laid out in the school finance plan to restore equitable funding to public schools.

While a lobbyist for the Kansas Policy Institute argued that improved funding has not resulted in equal improvements for student achievement or college readiness, two representatives of the Kansas Department of Education said otherwise. Brad Neuenswander, a deputy commissioner for the department, pointed to a decrease from 2015 to 2018 in Kansas Assessment Program scores in English, math and science, which began to level off in 2019.

“In 2017, the Legislature started putting money back into instruction. Schools started hiring staff back for before school, after school, counselors, social workers, all of that,” Neuenswander said before the Special Committee on Education. “In 2019, we finally saw proficiency leveling out and for the first time we started seeing subgroups — free lunch and African-American students — actually starting to go back up.”

Neuenswander also directed legislators on the committee to improvements in post-secondary success, measured two years after graduation, to see if graduates are still enrolled in a program or have received some degree, diploma or certificate. Overall, Kansas students’ post-secondary achievement rose from 2015 to 2019 by 1.2%, but the greatest gains were among students in poverty, increasing by 2.6%.

Graduation rates in Kansas have also steadily increased, from 85.7% in 2015 to 88.3% in 2020.

However, Dave Trabert, a lobbyist for the Kansas Policy Institute, argued that many students receiving diplomas were not prepared for graduation and post-secondary education.

“Even before COVID-19, we had more high school students in Kansas below grade level than were on track for college,” Trabert said. “These graduation rates aren’t very meaningful when we have more kids below grade level and on track for college and career.”

Trabert said the increase in state funding has not been matched by equal improvements in academic achievement or preparedness when it comes to NAEP scores, a national academic achievement assessment.

Kansas has set proficiency level expectations above the NAEP standard, while many other states have chosen to stick with the baseline. Neuenswander said if Kansas were to have a baseline at the same rate as Florida or Missouri, for example, the state would rank favorably in terms of proficiency.

One area still lagging due to insufficient funding is special education, said Craig Neuenswander, deputy commissioner of fiscal and administrative services for KSDE. While funding has increased every year for special education, costs have increased at a greater rate, he said.

“The issue with that for school districts is special education services are required by federal and state statutes,” Craig Neuenswander said. “So the school district cannot say, ‘Well, we will reduce that program this year or we won’t fund that program.’ They have to fund the program.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.