The Kansas Supreme Court again has ruled the state’s school funding system unconstitutional. So, how much money will the Legislature have to throw at the problem to get the court to go away?
The above question, commonly asked by legislators and journalists alike, is the wrong way to frame the issue — and that is part of the problem.
In its fifth — yes, fifth — decision in Gannon v. Kansas, the Kansas Supreme Court has set a deadline of June 30, 2018, to find solutions.
Legislators would get a lot further if they asked the questions posed in the rulings themselves: How much funding is required to achieve both adequacy, and equity, in public education throughout Kansas?
In determining the answer, the court relied on a 2002 report commissioned by the Legislature from the firm Augenblick & Myers. In the study, researchers used two years of standardized-test data to identify successful schools in Kansas. They then identified the amount of money per pupil need to achieve this level of success, adjusting those totals for the higher costs of providing opportunities for students whose families have lower incomes, as measured by the percentage of free and reduced-price school lunches.
This time, the state proposed a new approach to the court, but it was weak — no, make that pathetic. The state’s attorneys had the Kansas Legislative Research Department prepare a four-page memo in which the common statistical tool called regression analysis was used to measure the impact of certain independent variables on the dependent variable (student performance). School districts performing better than predicted by the model then were identified and those were put forth as the new benchmarks for success.
Regression is fine as a statistical tool — it also is used in the A&M report — but the state’s proposal was sketchy and poorly labeled. It did not list all school districts measured, nor was it specific regarding what exactly constitutes student performance. Furthermore, as noted by the court, many of the districts proposed as benchmarks in fact have high percentages of students performing below grade level on reading and math. Apparently, the Kansas Legislature decided to just phone it in this time. The judges were unimpressed.
If the Legislature scrapes together all the couch-cushion money it can find to just satisfy the court again next year, look for a Gannon 6 decision in our near future, with the usual outcome.
Time for a reboot. The Augenblick & Myers report is so old that plaintiffs and the state could not even agree on how to account for inflation since it was issued. The Legislature should commission a comprehensive new study to set benchmarks, based on documented best practices and truly successful Kansas schools, educating students at all income and skill levels. In the meantime, the new Gannon raises immediate concerns about the fate of students on free/reduced lunches and those with special needs. Justices also castigated the state for shifting school funding back to local sources, which worsens inequality, since some districts are much wealthier than others. These concerns can and should be addressed immediately, while awaiting the results of a comprehensive new study.
As for that new study, this is no time for political wrangling. There only need to be five criteria: a proven track record doing studies like this, adherence to best practices in the field, no conflict of interest, a promise of timely results and a competitive bid. The study should be guided by goals articulated in the landmark Rose decision from Kentucky, which the court relied upon in Gannon: “substantial uniformity, substantial equality of financial resources and substantial equal educational opportunity for all students.”
Kansas still is not doing this.
After five Gannon rulings, what do we have to lose by trying something new?
Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.