Politics & Government

Court focuses on struggling students in school funding arguments

The Kansas Supreme Court is weighing whether the state’s school funding system can be considered adequate when roughly one-third of students perform below grade level.

The issue came up repeatedly on Wednesday as attorneys for the state and plaintiff school districts argued before the state’s high court.

“About half of our students – perhaps two-thirds – flourish. The other one-third flounder,” said Alan Rupe, an attorney for the plaintiff school districts.

Wichita and three other school districts sued the state in 2010 after Kansas cut funding for schools while facing a budget shortfall. Although funding has increased since then, Rupe and his colleagues say the state still falls short of its constitutional requirement to ensure adequate funding.

A district court panel sided with the school districts in 2015. If the Supreme Court upholds that, it will require the state to pay an additional $800 million in education funding, something that would be difficult given the state’s budget constraints.

Rupe held up a chart showing nearly 37 percent of Kansas 11th-graders tested below grade level in math in 2015. More than half of African-American and Hispanic students were below grade level, he said.

“We’re falling short and we’re leaving massive numbers of kids behind,” he said.

Solicitor General Stephen McAllister, representing the state, said spending on Kansas public schools is at or near record levels, and students continue to perform well compared with their peers across the country.

“All these schools, their operating budgets have gone up over time. Not as much as they’d like, but they have gone up,” McAllister said.

The justices repeatedly pressed him about the one-third of students performing below grade level.

Justice Eric Rosen said Kansas performing well in comparison with other states could be proof that the country as a whole is underperforming. “One in three is OK?” he asked, referring to the number of fourth-graders in Kansas reading below grade level.

“We cannot achieve 100 percent proficiency,” McAllister responded. “No state has accomplished that.”

Wichita superintendent John Allison said many of the students who are falling behind come from impoverished homes, speak English as a second language or are enrolled in special education. He said if the court were to rule on behalf of the districts, the district could direct additional resources to those students.

“You have to have the resources. … If you don’t have the resources to hire and pay your staff, the quality of your staff isn’t going to be enough to get the results for your students, particularly when we’re talking about students with other needs.”

What turns around schools?

McAllister said the plaintiffs had failed to show that the system is inadequate and that a lower court failed to weigh all of the sources of funding, including federal and local aid, when it ruled in the districts’ favor last year. The state spends about $4 billion on education; total funding, including local and federal aid, exceeds $6 billion.

He cited cases in California and Texas where courts ruled that adequacy of school funding “is just beyond what the courts can really do.”

He said courts should defer to elected officials on policy decisions, which include how much to spend on public schools and how to spend it.

McAllister said more money doesn’t necessarily mean better student performance, pointing to an example used by the plaintiffs during trial. Emerson Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., went from one of that district’s worst-performing schools to one of the highest-performing Title 1 schools in the state after turnaround efforts that included a $3 million federal grant.

“The No. 1 reason Emerson Elementary turned around was not money. It was that they got rid of the principal and half the teachers and changed the attitude and the perspective of that school,” McAllister said.

“The leadership changed. The culture of the teachers changed. That was a huge factor. That doesn’t necessarily take more money.”

Kansas City, Kan., superintendent Cynthia Lane, who was sitting in the courtroom, disagreed with McAllister’s assessment of how Emerson improved. She explained that the federal school improvement grant, which the school received in 2011, enabled the district to extend the school year and put resources toward improving literacy.

“Without that, we couldn’t have extended the school year, we couldn’t have had this intense focus on literacy and professional learning,” she said.

Justice Lee Johnson noted that federal money financed technology and other tools Emerson Elementary used to boost student performance.

“I don’t know how you can argue that money doesn’t matter when you look at that example,” Johnson said to McAllister.

Curtis Middle School in Wichita, which in 2009 received a three-year, $6 million federal grant to pull itself off a list of the lowest-performing high-poverty schools in the state, raised test scores about 16 percent in reading and 15 percent in math. Turnaround efforts elsewhere in the district had more mixed results.

Shifting money

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss asked McAllister whether he could provide an example of a school seeing test scores decline or stagnate because additional funding had been added. McAllister said he could not name a specific example but that cases of stagnation likely exist.

The court appeared skeptical of the state’s arguments, but justices also raised concerns that the district court panel may have overstepped by ordering a specific dollar amount.

Justice Dan Biles suggested that any remedy ordered by the court would need to be directed to help the one-third of students who are struggling.

He said districts or the state could try to raise test scores among low-performing students by shifting money from services aimed at high-achieving kids, such as gifted programs or Advanced Placement courses, although that could be a hard sell politically.

Later, during his rebuttal, McAllister agreed that lawmakers or districts have the ability to move funds around within budgets.

“I wouldn’t want to see it happen, but it seems to me the AP courses are way above and beyond Rose capacities,” McAllister said, referring to the standard of education adopted by the court. “It definitely is within the Legislature’s discretion to consider sources of money that may not be needed to keep students at that level but could be redirected to the at-risk” students.

Lawmakers react

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said she wants to ensure that students who succeed aren’t adversely affected when the state tries to boost the remaining third.

“The idea that was floated that AP wasn’t necessary? Oh, my God. I would never support. That’s preposterous,” Rooker said. Helping struggling students requires putting resources toward programs that would help all students, she added.

“There needs to be enough additional funding to hire back more teachers, lower class sizes and get back to programs that develop teachers professionally to be better in the classroom, and all of those things take general money.”

Lawmakers already plan to craft a new school finance formula early next year regardless of how the court rules. Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said the court should allow those efforts to proceed.

“It’s our job to craft a new formula,” Huebert said. “And it will be challenging right now to find the funds to put in new money, but we’re going to have to make some hard decisions.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias, stobias@wichitaeagle.com

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3, blowry@wichitaeagle.com