The recent school-finance decision by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County will no doubt increase debate over money, taxes and formulas. However, the underlying focus of the decision should be on our Kansas students and the long-term future of our state.
In finding again that Kansas is failing to provide constitutionally suitable school funding, the court noted that, after several years of improvement on state reading and math tests, scores began to drop as the impact of funding cuts were felt. Likewise, Kansas scores on national tests have leveled off. Other factors, such as graduation rates and college readiness and completion, are “lagging indicators” that may decline as students move through an underfunded system.
Also, low-income students, who are also disproportionately represented among minority groups, lag behind their more advantaged peers on tests of basic skills, graduation and college preparation. This alone is evidence the state is not providing “suitable” funding for all students.
Demands for educational attainment are also growing. By the end of this decade, nearly 70 percent of Kansas jobs are expected to require some type of post-secondary education. Currently, only 58.1 percent of Kansans ages 18-24 have some post-secondary education.
Getting more students prepared for success after high school is critical. Jobs requiring higher skills and educational levels pay significantly more and pave the way for economic prosperity and personal advancement.
Total Kansas personal income is projected to have increased by more than 25 percent since 2010, while total school funding has increased just 10 percent in the same period, and much of the funding increase has come from local districts where voters have approved building projects to improve their schools.
Total K-12 school funding is projected to be just 4.42 percent of total personal income in 2015 – the lowest level since 1985. In fact, the state could increase educational funding by $550 million – what the court suggested was “the bottom level of reasonableness” – and still be spending a lower share of income than the 10-year average between 2001 and 2010.
The court found overwhelming evidence money matters to educational quality, and noted funding for current educational programs (as opposed to buildings and pensions) had fallen far below previous levels found to be constitutional. The ruling should be seen as an opportunity by the Legislature and governor to invest in higher levels of achievement and success for Kansas students, a state economy based on high skills and wages, and stronger families and communities.
Rod Stewart is president of the Kansas Association of School Boards and vice president of the Washington County school board.