TOPEKA — Consultants conducting a $285,000 study of Kansas public school finance outlined for lawmakers Friday boundaries of a report due in March on the minimum investment required to educate students in a manner consistent with the Kansas Constitution.
The presentation to members of the House and Senate revealed bipartisan anxiety about metrics included or excluded from the analysis. It affirmed a feeling among Democrats the consultants’ assessment would be politically tainted.
The Republican-led Kansas Legislature hired advisers from outside the Capitol’s bubble to execute a fresh accounting of the cost for educating the state’s 490,000 students. It follows the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling in October that a $300 million increase in state aid approved by the 2017 Legislature fell short of equity and adequacy mandates in the constitution. That increase spread among the state’s 286 districts was financed with a controversial income tax hike.
Lori Taylor, a professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, told education committee members why previous comprehensive cost studies were flawed or outdated. The two most influential evaluations applicable to Kansas were published in 2006 and 2011.
“Things have changed enormously in this state since the time frame in which these prior analyses were conducted,” Taylor said. “The expectations are different. The metrics are different. The economic environment, to a certain extent, is different. All of those changes cast doubt on the current applicability of the prior work.”
Taylor and Jason Willis, who works with the nonprofit WestEd consulting firm, said cornerstones of their study would be student needs, the price of labor, economies of scale and operational efficiencies. The data dive will shine light on school-by-school, student-by-student expenditures. The report will incorporate results from English and math test scores from the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic years.
The so-called Rose standards, which refer to markers related to graduation requirements or college and career skills, will be woven into the report. The Supreme Court has embraced those performance thresholds in previous rulings.
The conversation with legislators raised questions about the researchers’ approach to district or school consolidation, special education, instruction of English as a second language, the definition of poverty, merits of districts maintaining large cash reserves, the value placed on fine arts and whether the cost of transportation and food services ought to be downplayed.
Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said the issue of district consolidation must be studied as an avenue to reducing expenditures on public education.
“The district lines that we have were drawn in the ’60s, almost 60 years ago. I think that’s important to consider,” he said.
Taylor said she hadn’t been assigned to explore that issue in Kansas. Research in Texas demonstrated consolidation of school districts saves little money, but significant savings can occur by shutting down school buildings, she said.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said the consultants ought to be wary of relying heavily on housing prices when evaluating the cost of labor deployed in public schools. Rural housing often is less expensive that urban housing, she said, but there were hidden costs to residing in sparsely populated areas. The expense of driving long distances to shop for groceries and other essentials is an example, she said.
The decision by consultants to remove from core calculations district expenditures for transportation and food services for students doesn’t make sense, said Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway. She said local districts are subsidizing those services because state aid is insufficient to meet demand.
“A hungry student can’t learn,” she said.
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, inquired as to whether consultants would target bloated reserve accounts maintained by school districts.
“They’re using some of the state aid to increase those balances,” she said.
“I wonder if some here have ever read a school budget much less understand how various funds work,” replied Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita.
During the three-hour meeting, Taylor was dismissive of criticism related to excerpts from Texas court opinions in a 2005 school finance case that indicated her research on behalf of the Texas Legislature was “not credible” and “seriously flawed.”
“I have a deep experience with these policy issues,” said Taylor, a Salina native. “I am a very good choice to be the expert for this project.”
The report on instructional and administrative costs of operating public schools in Kansas is due March 15. The Supreme Court set an April 30 deadline for the Legislature’s fix for constitutional shortcomings.
Attorneys for the plaintiff school districts in the case said the remedy could require an additional $600 million annually. Prior to resigning, Gov. Sam Brownback recommended the 2018 Legislature adopt a bill phasing in a $600 million increase in five years.
House and Senate Democrats expressed frustration with the consultants’ presentation and speculated their report would be distorted to support arguments of some GOP legislative leaders that total education spending of $4 billion annually was constitutionally adequate.
“This will be the best study money can buy,” said Senate Minority Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said the hearing set the table for the consultants’ low-ball cost recommendation. The conservative GOP leadership will use the report as leverage until centrist Republicans agree to a modest increase in state aid to schools rather than the full amount justified, he said.
“This is the seventh week of the session, and we’ve done nothing on school finance,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita.