School-finance testimony compelling

06/28/2012 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:11 AM

If the school-finance trial in Topeka has been like a flashback to the Montoy case nearly a decade ago, the testimony has made it hard to imagine how the outcome could be any different.

Testimony has addressed the costs of providing a suitable education – a question researched exhaustively in multiple studies related to the Montoy case. That time, some legislators were quick to dismiss even their own staff’s studies if the conclusions came with a price tag they considered too high.

This time, in the face of testimony from USD 259 superintendent John Allison and principals about the real-world consequences of cuts in K-12 per-pupil base state aid over the past few years, the state has argued there’s an iffy connection between spending and student achievement.

That was well-trod ground in the Montoy case, too, and addressed by Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock in his 2003 opinion as he noted the reading gains that a short-term federal grant achieved in one district:

“Money doesn’t matter? That dog won’t hunt in Dodge City!”

Bullock found school funding then to be “clearly and grossly inadequate to provide Kansas children a suitable education” and therefore unconstitutional.

After several more years of resisting Bullock’s and the Kansas Supreme Court’s views on the matter, state lawmakers agreed on a multiyear effort to step up school spending. But the recession seemed to wipe out all memories of the court case in Topeka.

Now the state is back in court, having been sued by 54 school districts including Wichita. And the testimony before a three-judge panel as to the recent cuts’ impact has been compelling.

The principal of Wichita’s Hamilton Middle School – where 96 percent of students are low-income and more than half are falling short of expectations on assessments – testified Tuesday that running the school means “clothing our students, feeding our students” and tending to medical needs in the nurse’s office. But because of state budget cuts, the school has lost teachers, security personnel and sixth-grade band. And this fall the school will see 139 more students but no more funding, the principal said.

How does that math work?

Arthur Chalmers, the state’s main defense attorney in the trial, has noted cases where test scores went up despite spending reductions. He also has argued that when all funds are considered, including federal dollars and pension contributions, schools are receiving more money than they were before the state began cutting per-pupil base aid.

But the base-aid cuts are what directly affect Kansas classrooms. And those cuts have been speaking for themselves in school buildings and at school board meetings around the state, and this month on the witness stand in Topeka.

Testimony could end today in the trial, with a decision by the 2013 legislative session. Gov. Sam Brownback and lawmakers had better start planning now for what they’ll do if the court declares the current funding levels to be unconstitutional just as the massive new income-tax cuts start cutting into state revenue collections.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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