School ruling: A circus of the absurd

The recent court ruling on school finance is so full of absurdities it's difficult to know where to begin, but let's start with the fact spending $597 million more annually will do little if anything to raise student achievement.

Performance on independent national tests has remained unchanged for years, despite billions more in taxpayer aid. Less than half of Kansas' fourth-grade and eighth-grade students are proficient in math and only about a third in reading. It costs a lot of money to operate schools, but it's how the money is spent that matters, not how much.

In ordering the state to spend $443 million more on the premise that school funding is unconstitutionally low, the court itself violated the Constitution. The Kansas Constitution says only the Legislature has the power to appropriate. The full cost of the court's order is $597 million; increasing state aid will automatically increase the local option budget by another $154 million in local property taxes.

The court ignored many facts in finding that schools are underfunded, including:

* 2012 was a record-setting year for taxpayer support of public education in Kansas, at $5.771 billion.

* KSDE says 2013 will shatter the 2012 record at $5.816 billion, or $12,734 per-pupil.

* Districts aren't even spending all of the money they've been given. Every single year since 2005, districts have used some state and local tax dollars to increase cash reserves, going from $458 million to $889 million.

If you're wondering how judges could declare schools underfunded given these facts, it's because they, like most school districts, only look at base state aid per pupil. That amount ($3,838 this year) accounts for only 30 percent of the $12,738 in total aid schools are expected to receive. They ignore $850 million in weightings (at risk, special education, transportation, etc.), $440 million for KPERS and bond payments and about $1.7 billion in aid districts collect locally via state authority.

They also ignore $455 million provided through the federal government. That's another absurdity -- the court and school districts act as though all this money comes from government, when in fact in all comes from taxpayers. Governments have no money of their own; they merely collect and redistribute it.

The court based its ruling on the 2005 Montoy decision, in which the Kansas Supreme Court relied on a flawed 2001 Augenblick & Myers cost study. A&M admitted they deviated from their standard methodology and threw efficient use of taxpayer money out the window. To this day, no study has been conducted to determine what it would cost to have schools achieve required outcomes and be organized and operating in a cost-effective manner.

Schools have made efforts to become more efficient, but having studied how districts spend taxpayer money for several years, I can assure you Kansas school districts are still not organized or operating in a cost-effective manner.

More money hasn't -- and won't -- solve the problem. State assessments show that after decades of hard work by dedicated teachers and billions more in aid, only 56 percent of 11th-grade students read grade-appropriate material with full comprehension.

Education officials across the country are embracing student-focused reforms and giving parents more choice, but the education lobby in Kansas remains stubbornly rooted in "just spend more."

That's absurd.

Dave Trabert is president of Kansas Policy Institute. He is a frequent speaker to business, legislative and civic groups and also does research and writes on fiscal policy and education issues.