Politics & Government

She will tell Kansas what to spend on schools. A judge called her numbers 'not credible'

Lori Taylor, right, and her colleague, Jason Willis, speak with lawmakers on Friday. Taylor is helping develop school funding recommendations for the Legislature. She has faced criticism from a Texas judge over her past work.
Lori Taylor, right, and her colleague, Jason Willis, speak with lawmakers on Friday. Taylor is helping develop school funding recommendations for the Legislature. She has faced criticism from a Texas judge over her past work. The Wichita Eagle

A judge once called “not credible” the numbers used by a Texas professor who will tell Kansas lawmakers how much to spend on schools.

The Legislature will decide whether to boost funding for schools in part based on the professor’s recommendations. Lawmakers will use her report in responding to a Kansas Supreme Court decision that found current funding is inadequate.

Texas A&M professor Lori Taylor defended her work in a 2004 case Friday and said her approach had turned out to be the correct one. Republican lawmakers supported her.

But House Democratic Leader Jim Ward of Wichita said "it is never good" when a judge rules that someone’s data isn’t credible.

Taylor’s research has focused on school finance and she has worked as a consultant on funding issues for multiple states. She has also been an economist and policy adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Kansas legislative leaders hired Taylor in December after a search for an expert witness who could assist in preparing a response to the Supreme Court. The Legislature is prepared to pay upwards of $400,000 to hire Taylor and attorneys to help prepare its response.

In 2004, a Texas judge said Taylor’s numbers "simply are not credible on their face." Taylor had conducted a study in a Texas school funding lawsuit that Judge John Dietz said contained incorrect assumptions and had under-predicted how much it would cost for Texas students to meet performance targets.

"Dr. Taylor’s approach is seriously flawed and is not credible," Dietz said at the time.

Taylor defended her work on Friday during her first public appearance before Kansas lawmakers. She said Dietz "turned out not to be my greatest fan."

Later published work suggests the approach that she took turned out to be the right one, she said. In the school finance case in Texas, her study recommended only a relatively small increase of less than $1 million for districts that were suing the state.

In the end, she said, the plaintiff districts received a few million dollars in new funding – far less than the hundreds of millions they sought.

"So basically what you get was that we were the closest to what turned out in hindsight to be the right number of any of the experts in the room. Therefore, I strongly disagree with the judge’s conclusion that our numbers were implausible," Taylor said.

Ward said he was surprised by Taylor’s testimony.

“Usually you don’t lead off with, ‘Courts have found me not to be credible – but that’s not true,’” Ward said.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, said Taylor had addressed the criticisms head-on. She said that no matter who the Legislature had hired, someone would try to find a way to undermine the expert’s work.

"Some of the attacks that you saw that were passed out and published, quite frankly, by the attorneys that are representing the school districts that are suing the state, it was nothing less than character assassination," Baumgardner said.

A document of quotes from the Texas judge about Taylor is circulating within the Statehouse. Asked about Baumgardner’s comments, Alan Rupe, an attorney representing districts that are suing the state, said he hadn’t circulated the document.

"If there’s any character assassination going on,” it was by the judge that heard the case, Rupe said.

Taylor is expected to deliver her final report to lawmakers by March 15. She discussed her methodology with lawmakers on Friday and explained what she would take into account as she develops recommendations.

The information she’ll consider ranges from labor costs of schools to geographic differences between school districts. She didn’t preview any of her recommendations on Friday.

School districts suing the state say $600 million in new funding is needed for schools. Republican leaders do not support adding $600 million, which is the amount then-Gov. Sam Brownback proposed in January. Lawmakers harshly criticized the proposal because Brownback didn’t say how he would pay for it.

Providing schools with hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding would throw the state’s budget off balance. Lawmakers would either need to raise taxes, cut spending, or pursue some combination to pay for the added spending.

Previous comments suggest Republican leaders hope Taylor will not recommend a large funding increase.

"We’re focused on finding experts who can help show the court that funding is adequate," Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said in December before Taylor was hired.

Lawmakers will have only a few weeks to act after Taylor produces her report. The Supreme Court has set an April 30 deadline for the state to say how it plans to respond to its ruling.

But the Legislature typically takes much of April off. If lawmakers want to have their traditional break, they will effectively have to pass legislation by early April.

After they pass a bill, Gov. Jeff Colyer must sign it and Attorney General Derek Schmidt will have to prepare legal briefs for the court.

All of that takes time.

"There really is no way for us to adjourn April 6 without us having something in the hands of the attorney general," said Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman