Journey of a Superintendent: Details Matter in the 65 Percent Debate

Dr. Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools

The elections are over, and now we hope that dialogue can result in meaningful progress on the challenges we face as a nation, including those right here in Kansas. But some of the rhetoric I hear coming out of Topeka makes me fear for the future of our children. I cringe every time I hear someone say, “Public schools have plenty of money, large balances, and are spending money on administrators rather than teachers.” Efficiency task forces have been formed, and email boxes are expanding with multiple requests for data on school spending, are coming in from a wide variety of agencies and organizations. I wonder, with all this effort, if the facts will really make it to our citizens. Hold us (both board and district leaders) accountable, but do it with accurate information.

How did we move from a conversation about funding schools adequately, to one that suggests that schools are wasting money? (And let me be the first to acknowledge that there may be some districts that do, and we are always looking to do our work as efficiently as possible. However, assumptions are just what the old saying suggests.) A law was enacted by the Kansas legislature in 2005, which recommends that 65 percent of state revenue for K-12 schools be directed into the classroom. This sounds right, and some taxpayers might suggest that even more funding should go directly into the classroom.

You know I believe that every dollar we spend should benefit our children. Yet, I wonder, “Why 65 percent, and not some other number?” Is there something special about that number? Well, as it turns out, not really . . . It all started with a conservative activist in Arizona, who convinced Patrick M. Byrne, president of Overstock.com, to champion the issue. I have not been able to locate any research that proves that this is the right amount.

And even more interesting, there may be a more important question that rarely gets asked, “What’s included in the 65% calculation?”

Let me explain by talking about our district. In the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, the “instructional” expenditures category is only 58 percent. But hold on before you criticize us. There are a few things you should know. When we include all the services that are absolutely essential to support instruction in the classroom, that are absolutely necessary for success, we are at 88 percent. What explains the wide difference? Let me share words from my Grandmother. Grandma Minnie was in the retail business, specializing in women’s clothing. On more than one occasion she would say, “Ladies, we never leave the house without checking your panty hose, and ensuring your shoes , pocket-book, and gloves all match. And for heaven’s sake ladies, wear a hat! That’s what proper ladies do.”

What? No, I haven’t gone over the cliff. Looking at the expenditures for public schools requires a complete view, and attention to the details. The codes to categorize school expenditures are standardized by federal requirements. This allows us to compare district to district, state to state and so on. It’s what’s in and what’s not in each category that really matters, and what together forms the entire “outfit.”

Here’s what I mean. All teachers and classroom aides are included in “instruction.”  Telephones, video, television and “teaching machines” are included. What is omitted from the  “instruction” category? Librarians, counselors, nurses, student support services, principals, operation and maintenance, utilities, transportation, food service, payroll, human resources, and let’s not forget superintendents! (Ok, that last one may weaken my point, but think about an organization without a leader. I do know some leaderless groups, and usually, nothing gets done.)

I don’t know a teacher who would not say that the support staff, heating and cooling, food for the students, payroll, and other functions are critical to supporting his/her work! By the way, gone are the days where the principal stays in the front office. In KCKPS, our principals are expected to be in classrooms, coaching teachers, modeling instruction, and many also teach a class or tutor students who need extra support. Gone are the days of walking to school, bringing or going home for lunch, and the one-room schoolhouse. If we want that model, it’s a different conversation.

So if you hear statements like “schools are hiring administrators and not teachers,” look beyond the “dress” and understand why all the other components are essential. Absolutely: teachers and classrooms are the first priority! That doesn’t mean that everything else is not necessary. What we need to be arguing is how to get the best teachers in every classroom and how to pay them equal to the impact they have on each of our children’s lives, our community, and our nation.

What is needed is everyone’s involvement. Parents, educators, community, business and industry leaders. If you are not involved, step up. Education is the only way we are going to lower taxes, increase individual self-reliance, and improve our economy and workforce. Help the boards of education and superintendents, principals, teachers and support staff provide the best education possible for all children. Hold us accountable for being good stewards of public funds and for achieving meaningful results! Look at the details. It’s not just the dress, it’s the entire “outfit” that provides accurate data.

Oh, and Grandma, “Forget the hat and gloves!”

Let’s remember, “It’s Up to Us.”

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