Finance expert testifies in trial over Kansas public school funding

06/11/2012 5:00 AM

08/05/2014 7:51 PM

The second week of a trial over the way Kansas funds public schools opened Monday with testimony from a Rutgers University expert who said a “suitable education” involves more than just proficiency in math and reading.

Bruce Baker, formerly of the University of Kansas, said that students also need to have the skills to succeed in higher education or in the labor force and that classrooms must be properly equipped to teach them. For example, he said, technology isn’t necessary just for college-bound students but those who will pursue careers in farming.

“There’s a lot more stuff going into the physical space” where students are taught, he said. “The complexity of what goes into the physical space isn’t what it used to be.”

Baker was the first witness called Monday by lawyers for school districts suing the state in Shawnee County District Court. The districts contend they get don’t enough money to satisfy the state constitution’s mandate for providing a “suitable education.”

Lawyers for the state, meanwhile, say lawmakers did the best they could to fund schools as revenue declined during the recent recession.

A panel of three judges is hearing arguments and will decide whether the state is providing enough money for schools to provide the “suitable education” required by the state constitution.

“Much of that is left to how the judicial branch interprets the language,” Baker said.

But he also testified that it’s not enough for students to achieve proficiency on standardized math and science tests, given that the material on the exams aren’t the totality of what they will need to know in college or work. He said some districts need additional resources to make sure students with special academic needs don’t require remedial courses later. And, districts require adequate funding not only to hire qualified teachers but to equip classrooms so they can teach effectively, he said.

Baker was teaching at KU when he testified during previous Kansas school finance litigation that resulted in nearly $1 billion in additional spending on public schools. As part of his testimony, Baker studied the effects of the increased spending on student learning following Kansas Supreme Court rulings in 2005 and 2006.

He said some of the spending increases on teacher salaries in poor and urban districts were undermined by changes to state law that gave more affluent districts the ability to raise more money locally. For example, additional funding allowed Kansas City, Kan., schools to raise teacher salaries to be more competitive with those in more affluent Johnson County to the south. However, a provision allowing Johnson County districts to levy a “cost-of-living” tax enabled them to raise money that in turn was used to raise salaries.

Baker said the result was Kansas City couldn’t close the wage gap enough to prevent teachers from looking elsewhere.

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