Government & Politics

Think tank CEO, Kansas Chamber chief named to Kansas student performance panel

The leaders of the Kansas Policy Institute and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce are among those named to a commission that will review how students perform.

The K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission was created by the school funding bill the Legislature passed in April. The intent is to study how school funding dollars can be spent most efficiently to maximize student outcomes.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, who has two picks for the nine-person commission, chose Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, and Mike O’Neal, who preceded Merrick as speaker and now serves as president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

“Dave knows education numbers better than almost anyone outside the Department of Education. Mike was a long-time legislator who chaired the House Education Committee,” Merrick said in a short statement. “They’re both seasoned experts who’ve committed themselves to increasing student outcomes in Kansas.”

Trabert said in a release that he was honored to be named to the commission.

“Public education costs a lot of money but a large body of research shows that student outcomes are impacted by how money is spent rather than ‘how much,’” Trabert said. He added that the gaps between low-income students and their wealthier peers grew despite increases in at-risk funding, meant to help schools with high numbers of low-income students.

“Identifying ways to provide the same or better service at a better price makes more money available for efforts that actually improve outcomes,” he said.

Both the chamber and KPI were active in advocating for reforms during the contentious school finance debate. KPI pushed for the Legislature to consider expanding charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded, a policy that did not make it into the final bill.

The chamber lobbied to create a tax break for corporations that donate to private school scholarship funds and to eliminate state-mandated hearings before public school teachers’ contracts can be terminated, both of which made it into the law.

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, which fought these provisions, said both Trabert and O’Neal have pushed for privatization of public schools. He also questioned the appointments on the grounds that Trabert and O’Neal are both registered lobbyists.

“Here’s a study group established by the Legislature to advise the Legislature and they’re putting paid lobbyists from interest groups on this commission,” he said. “Lobbyists are there to present their client’s positions before those committees and commissions, not to run them. I wouldn’t expect to be appointed to the thing. I’m a lobbyist for goodness sake.”

Gov. Sam Brownback will have three appointments to make to the commission and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, will have two.

The two remaining appointments go to the Senate Minority Leader and the House Minority Leader. A spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Hensley had chosen Janis Lee, a former Democratic state senator, and House Minority Leader Paul Davis had chosen John Vratil, a former Republican senator from Leawood.

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