Law & Courts

New Dimension to Kansas’ K-12 Funding Puzzle

By Daarel Burnette II — April 04, 2017 6 min read
Kansas Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, left, confers with J.G. Scott, right, the chief fiscal analyst for the legislature’s research staff, on K-12 budget issues, as Larry Hinton, center, McGinn’s administrative assistant, follows their discussion.

But in Kansas this year, lawmakers and school officials are asking deeper questions about not only how much money is spent but also where to invest that money to assure that black, Latino, and low-income students, in particular, are seeing academic results.

An all-out war erupted last month between school officials, the legislature, and the governor over how to boost the achievement level of a quarter of the state’s students using the state’s funding system. The flash point: a state supreme court ruling in early March that called the state’s school spending methods inadequate and unconstitutional.

Kansas school districts hail the decision as a victory in a years-long legal battle with the legislature over the school funding mechanism and predict the ruling will require the state to pour close to $779 million more into an old funding formula to satisfy the court. They say the legislature has for years left schools flailing financially, sparking a statewide teacher shortage and forcing superintendents to choose between giving their teachers raises, raising class sizes, and keeping critical wraparound programs.

It’s not how the state doles out money, school officials said, it’s how much money it doles out.

But Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the state’s Republican legislators take a far different view. They point to language in the ruling that they say recognized that while the amount of money counts, so does how it’s spent.

Under their proposal, which is now snaking its way through the House of Representatives, the state would crack down on academically wayward schools, upend its accreditation process to demand faster gains, offer vouchers to students “trapped” at chronically failing schools, and more strictly target money to intervention programs for the state’s poor students.

Bottom line: The governor and GOP lawmakers estimate a satisfactory solution would cost the state just $75 million.

“The Kansas Supreme Court correctly observes that our education system has failed to provide a suitable education for the lowest-performing 25 percent of students,” Brownback said after the ruling. “The old funding formula failed our students, particularly those that struggle most. The new funding system must right this wrong.”

District officials argue those approaches won’t be effective and the court would likely reject the new funding formula.

“Like Jerry McGuire, it’s time for the state to show me the money,” said Alan Rupe, the lawyer for the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City, and Witchita school districts. “This is like throwing a glass of water on a prairie fire.”

Examining Test Scores

In the past, courts typically have ruled on whether a state’s school funding level is high enough and is distributed equitably between districts. Experts say there’s a new dimension to those cases now that those bringing the lawsuits can cite standardized test data that makes crystal clear the academic disparities between white students and black and Latino students and the effectiveness of state spending habits to close those disparities.

“There are some deep, difficult issues lurking in the background of these lawsuits, such as a child’s nutrition, the presence of lead paint in the home, violence, [that] clearly have an impact on educational outcomes,” said Richard E. Levy, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Kansas who has studied courts’ rulings on achievement gaps. “Adequate funding for poorer districts is an important and necessary step, but it’s not going to be sufficient because there are larger social issues that have to be addressed in more comprehensive ways to address the achievement.”

Those issues have been a factor in school funding debates this year in Kentucky, New Jersey, Texas, and Wyoming, where lawmakers are attempting to dismantle decades-old funding formulas in response to state court rulings dating, in some cases, back to the 1980s.

The Kansas ruling caps decades of infighting between the state’s politicians and its supreme court justices over what constitutes an “adequate” and “equitable” education under the state constitution. Both of the issues were at stake in the long-running funding lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, which spawned two separate high court rulings.

Last year, the state supreme court deemed the way the state distributed money between its wealthier and poorer districts inequitable and threatened to shut the public schools down unless policymakers assured the system wasn’t shortchanging the poorer districts. The state ultimately came up with changes that satisfied the districts’ complaints.

Funding Adequacy

But the second part of the Gannon lawsuit dealt with adequacy: whether the state was investing enough money in order to get students to meet the state’s minimal expectations for them.

In its March ruling calling the state’s funding system inadequate, Kansas supreme court justices considered test-score data and the state’s own standards to determine that the way the money was being spent failed the test of adequacy. They noted, in particular, that half of the state’s black students and a third of its Latino students don’t meet basic reading and math standards.

The legislature is left to come up with a funding system that meets the court’s definition of adequate, and is both politically feasible and affordable. And it’s doing so amid a severe fiscal crunch.

The current system, adopted in 2015, provides block grants directly to districts based on need and student population. The state’s educators favor returning to the funding formula the state used prior the block grant, which they say contains appropriate weights for low-income students and students with special needs. They have asked for $779 million in extra supports that include expanding pre-K, giving teachers raises, and adding hundreds of school counselors and social workers.

The state’s school board association bases its estimation of a satisfactory court ruling on the amount of money the state has cut from the budget since the court most recently ruled the funding formula inadequate.

But under the bill that’s making its way through the House, HB 2410, several wealthier districts would actually lose money, a sure-fire way for the court to reject that funding formula, too, lawyers say.

Conservative legislators cite data that show that despite hundreds of millions of dollars of investment after an earlier ruling, overall achievement levels for the state’s poor and minority students barely budged. In order for improvement, the state needs to more strategically parse out its dollars and raise its expectations of districts.

“Money always matters, but it’s not the amount,” said Dave Trabert, the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, who helped design the funding formula being proposed in the house. He alleges districts misspent millions of dollars in recent years. “It’s how the money is spent that will make the difference.”

Alan Cunningham, the superintendent of Dodge City, one of the districts that originally sued the state, said tighter controls from the state on district spending for low-income students’ unique needs will prevent the district from boosting test scores.

Administrators at the mostly rural district, located near a beef plant that employs thousands of recent Mexican and Somali immigrants, have spent unrestricted money from the state to provide more transportation for its students, and offer several after-school activities to keep students engaged, all efforts Cunningham says are at risk under the new formula.

“What we’ve found out is these kids are really, really sharp kids but they’ve had interruptions in their schooling,” Cunningham said, mentioning language barriers and family stability. “These are all barriers, but they are not things that can’t be overcome if we had the right resources. ”

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2017 edition of Education Week as New Dimension to Kansas’ Funding Puzzle

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