Kansas could be required to spend $1 billion more in school funding if the Kansas Supreme Court rules in favor of the districts suing the state.
A court order of that magnitude would require some combination of tax increases and cuts in other state services.
The court will hear arguments Wednesday on whether school funding is adequate as required by the Kansas Constitution. A ruling is expected later.
What is at stake is what are we going to have for resources to educate our kids for the next 12 to 15 years, which is an entire generation of Kansas kids.
John Robb, a lawyer representing Wichita and other districts that have sued the state over school funding
“What is at stake is what are we going to have for resources to educate our kids for the next 12 to 15 years, which is an entire generation of Kansas kids,” said John Robb, a lawyer representing Wichita and other districts that have been suing the state since 2010. “And the question is: Are we going to do right by the next generation of Kansas kids, or are we going to treat them the way we treated the last generation?”
Gov. Sam Brownback and others say the state is already doing right by Kansas students. The state spends about $4 billion on education, up about $160 million since Brownback took office in 2011. School advocates say the increase has not kept up with inflation.
A district court panel ruled last year that the state was unconstitutionally underfunding schools. If the Supreme Court upholds that ruling, it would mean about $800 million more in total education funding, Robb said.
However, the court could order the state to pay anywhere between $500 million to more than $1 billion, he estimated.
If the Supreme Court gives John Robb the relief he wants, they will be ordering the largest tax increase in state history simultaneously with the deepest budget cuts to other agencies in state history.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence
A ruling like that would plunge cash-strapped Kansas deeper into fiscal crisis, said Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who is not seeking re-election.
“If the Supreme Court gives John Robb the relief he wants, they will be ordering the largest tax increase in state history simultaneously with the deepest budget cuts to other agencies in state history,” said King, an attorney who represented the state in a previous school finance case.
“This case isn’t in a vacuum. If you order $1 billion in new (K-12) funding, mental health services, higher education, public safety and taxpayers’ pockets will be devastated,” King said. “And I hope the court doesn’t do that.”
The state estimated in July that it would finish the 2017 fiscal year next June with about $77 million in the bank. But it has missed revenue estimates by $26 million during the first two months of the fiscal year.
“We are not going to speculate on what the Court may or may not do,” Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail when asked how the state would handle a ruling of that magnitude.
“While the amount of money is important, what is more important is how and where that money is spent,” Hawley said. “The Governor looks forward to working with legislators when they return in January. As appropriators, the final decision is theirs.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said in an e-mail that “based on past actions, I would not be surprised if they once again attempt to appropriate a specific amount of money to schools.”
A standoff between the Legislature and the court over whether school funding is equitable nearly led to the shutdown of school districts this summer. A ruling on adequacy could pose an even bigger challenge for the Legislature next year.
The hearing comes during an election season in which every seat in the Legislature is up for a vote and five of the court’s seven justices stand for retention.
The criteria the court will use to evaluate whether the state has met its obligation to students is the Rose standards. They originated from a Kentucky school finance case and were adopted as a guideline by the Kansas court in 2014.
The Rose standards focus on students having sufficient grounding in a broad range of skills that would enable them to participate fully in society.
King called the standards “fuzzy” and said “the biggest job the Supreme Court has is to tell us what their own standards mean. … I can tell you I don’t really know for sure, and I’m not sure they do.”
Asked whether the governor thinks Kansas schools are adequately funded, Hawley cited a recent report from the Kansas Association of School Boards that said the state ranks 10th in the nation in educational outcomes.
Robb said the state’s own assessments show it is not serving all of its students adequately.
The state adopted more rigorous assessments in 2015. That year, 37.1 percent of Kansas eighth-graders did not meet grade-level standards in math, according to data from the Kansas Department of Education.
More than half of African-American eighth-graders, 59.9 percent, were below grade level in math. That also was true of Hispanic students, with 52.4 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders testing below grade level in math.
“The educators will tell you that all kids can learn. We don’t have to have this level of performance,” Robb said. “But to fix it, we know how to do it, it just takes resources, and we don’t have the resources to do it.”
Wichita superintendent John Allison said the Wichita school district would use a funding increase to invest in technology for classrooms and hire more teachers, counselors and social workers. Hiring more teachers would enable the district to shrink class sizes.
“We’ve seen our class size creep up every year … and particularly at the kindergarten-first-grade (level), our efforts to do a lot of small group instruction have been almost impossible to sustain because we don’t have the staff,” Allison said.
Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank that promotes smaller government, disputed the notion that a funding increase would lead to improved student outcomes.
“There is absolutely no causation between the amount of money spent and achievement,” Trabert said. “I can show you state after state after state that spends a lot more money than Kansas and gets worse results.”
Trabert said the Supreme Court should dismiss the case.
Mark Tallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said many districts would use a funding increase to offer pre-school programs, bring back after-school programs and expand career and technical education. He said this would lead to better educational outcomes for Kansas students.
Kansas has seen its scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam known as the National Report Card, decline in recent years, but the state still surpasses the national average in most categories.
“We have long prided ourselves on being a very high-achieving state,” Tallman said. “The data says we still do well compared to other states, but the data is suggesting that if we either don’t improve or don’t improve as fast as other states, we are going to fall further behind and be less competitive with other states.”
The Rose standards
The Kansas Supreme Court said in 2014 that an adequate school finance system would be “reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed” the Rose standards.
Those standards require:
▪ Sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization
▪ Sufficient knowledge of economic, social and political systems to enable the students to make informed choices
▪ Sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the students to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state and nation
▪ Sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness
▪ Sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage
▪ Sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently
▪ Sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market