We’ve heard years of whining about public school funding in Kansas.
Legislators have griped that the state isn’t adequately supporting public schools, other legislators have complained that the state is spending too much on public schools or local school boards are spending it wrong?
Well, that’s nearly all over. The Kansas Supreme Court in its decision last month decided that if the Legislature will just appropriate enough money to make up for several years of low-ball spending, the state’s school finance not only will meet equity standards but that dollar-sign punctuated the adequacy threshold.
Now, folks in the Statehouse still are doing the long division and such to come up with a flat number for an increase in state funding the high court says is necessary. Early estimates are that somewhere between $80 million and $120 million in additional spending in each of the next four years would meet the court’s order. Few are doubting there will be enough money to make that increase in state aid.
But … then … the whole issue of public education changes.
Once the money meets constitutional standards for adequacy — and if the Legislature doesn’t short-change that standard in the out-years as it has in past court-watched deals — what happens to public education?
There will be a sizable percentage of the Legislature that figures if the money is OK, it’s over. And there will be a sizable percentage which decides that “constitutional” doesn’t really speak to just what the students learn and how it helps them live a prosperous life, take care of their kids and their parents when needed, and make the state more prosperous.
The difference? Maybe that’s where Kansans find out — and tell their legislators — just what they want from schools. After years of fighting over the money, it’s likely the debate will switch to just how schools teach, how well the students do on standardized tests, and which districts produce the highest number of graduates ready to proceed with their lives, get technical education, go on to college or whatever.
Some of that debate will undoubtedly splash back on locally elected boards of education. Because the constitutional money issue can be off the table, it’s looking at individual districts to see which of the 278 districts uses that “constitutionally adequate” state aid to produce the smartest students with the best futures ahead of them.
New football helmets and cheerleader uniforms or additional classes to make sure students with disabilities get the best education they can? Or whether every student gets a computer to carry around and the schoolbooks (they still have them?) are the latest, best-written volumes in print?
We’re down to a court-blessed adequate funding plan and unless the State Board of Education radically changes its measurement of student performance, lawmakers will be able to see where money is being spent well and where it apparently isn’t being spent in the best interests of the students — and their families.
That’s a dramatic change in the school finance debate. It’s not just about money, though lawmakers could of course put more in, but it’s about just what the state is getting for its adequate spending of taxpayers’ money.
Now, of course, there is still battling to be done — ranging from the court’s “adequate” being too high or low to the authority of the court to decide cases in which the Legislature is held to a standard for funding of schools.
But there might be a dramatic change in K-12 education policy, and you can bet that there will be splash-back on individual school districts and their locally elected members if they can’t make “adequate” funding produce smarter and smarter students.
This might be interesting to watch.
Martin Hawver is publisher of Hawver’s Capitol Report.