Kansas school funding decision ignores facts in arriving at a political decision

Today’s ruling on Gannon v. State of Kansas in which the Shawnee County District Court declared school funding to be unconstitutionally low ignores a long list of facts that disprove school districts’ contentions.  The three-judge panel may even have ignored the State Supreme Court’s order that adequacy is to be determined on whether outcomes – as defined by the Rose standards – are being met.  The judges essentially dusted off their original ruling (that was rejected by the Supreme Court) and added some legal jargon to justify much of their original decision in arriving at what is essentially a political decision.

The judges tried to pretend that they weren’t giving the Legislature a specific number but made it very clear that anything less than $4,654 in Base State Aid per Pupil plus associated weighting is now a “bottom range of reasonableness.”  That amounts to a direct order to increase funding by $548 million.

Rose capacities and outcomes

The Supreme Court ruled that the “…adequacy component is met when the public education financing system provided by the legislature for grades K-12—through structure and implementation—is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the standards set out in Rose…”  The court went on to say, “This test necessarily rejects a legislature’s failure to consider actual costs as the litmus test for adjudging compliance with the mandates of Article 6. For example, even if a legislature had not considered actual costs, a constitutionally adequate education nevertheless could have been provided—albeit perhaps accidentally or for worthy non-cost-based reasons. And actual costs from studies are more akin to estimates than the certainties the panel suggested.”

In short, if students are meeting or exceeding the Rose standards, then funding may be adequate.  However, the district court didn’t examine whether students are meeting or exceeding the Rose standards; the judges merely said the Rose standards have been around a long time and everyone obviously knows what they mean.

But that’s not true.  On August 19, the Kansas Association of School Boards appeared before the K-12 Commission saying school districts don’t know how to measure Rose and asked for “the development of a system to define and measure…” the Rose standards.  On September 3, Olathe Superintendent Marlin Berry said “…the Rose standards need to be well-defined so that school districts know what they mean.”  He went on to say, “We need to better define the Rose standard capacities.”

Dodge City superintendent Alan Cunningham (another Gannon plaintiff district) also testified on September 3, objecting to state intervention on “efficiencies” and said that the local school board and community should set public school priorities “…until such time as there is agreement on indicators for assessing a school’s, district’s or state’s performance relative to the Rose standards.”

On September 4, Wichita Superintendent John Allison (also a Gannon plaintiff district) said he “…would like to lend support to the recommendations provided by USA and KASB.”  He also said, “We need clear goals” and made no exception for any USA or KASB recommendations that he did not support.

If districts can’t measure the Rose standards, they have no legal basis for claiming they don’t have adequate funding to achieve the standards.  Case closed.

The panel did note that there was some improvement in state assessment scores while funding was increasing, but they did so to support their premise that “money matters” rather than to determine whether the Rose standards were being met.

Reliance on deliberately-inflated cost study

As noted earlier, the Supreme Court said, “…actual costs from studies are more akin to estimates than the certainties the panel suggested.”  But the district court ignored that admonition and based their ruling on a 2001 cost study that is known to have been deliberately skewed to produce inflated costs.

Former KPI scholar and now State Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall wrote a 2009 legal analysis ofMontoy vs. State of Kansas that uncovered shocking facts about the cost study upon which the court ruling was based.

The consulting firm Augenblick & Myers was hired by the Legislative Post Audit Committee in 2001 to perform the study.  Their estimate of the cost of a “suitable education” (as A&M defined ‘suitable’) was based on their Successful Schools Approach, which they said, “…allows for the inclusion of spending efficiency to be used as a measure of success.”

Stegall writes, “A&M collected the list of school districts that had already met both the input and outcome standards of the suitable education definition. This list included 85 school districts.”  He goes on to say, “A&M had hoped to further winnow the number of “successful school” district models by examining the efficiency with which the 85 districts spent their money.  After analyzing how several factors (such as attendance center size, enrollment, proportion of low-income students, and local tax effort) affected spending, A&M used these results to estimate a “predicted spending” efficiency level for each district. A&M then compared this “predicted spending” level for each district to a district’s actual spending, seeking to identify which school districts were spending efficiently.  But when the results demonstrated that 50 of the 85 “successful school” districts would be considered inefficient spenders, A&M decided not to use efficiency as a component of a “successful school,” choosing instead to use all 85 school districts. A&M concluded that had it used an efficiency standard to exclude those 50 districts, this “might [have] undermine[d] the possibility that this higher [albeit inefficient] spending is what allows districts to be successful in Kansas.” In other words, as throughout the cost-study process, methodologies were adopted expressly because of the results they could be expected to deliver.”

After the State Supreme Court used the A&M study to declare school funding should increase by $853 million, the Legislature had Legislative Post Audit update the numbers from the 2001 study.  LPA very clearly said on page 2, “It’s important for the reader to understand that any study involving the estimation of costs for something as complex as K-12 education involves a significant number of decisions and assumptions. Different decisions or assumptions can result in very different cost estimates.”  Later on the same page, they said, “it’s important to remember that these cost studies are intended to help the Legislature decide appropriate funding levels for K-12 public education. They aren’t intended to dictate any specific funding level, and shouldn’t be viewed that way.”

The three-judge panel ignored this critical disclaimer, blithely saying the LPA 2006 study was “framed from the perspective of what it would cost to accomplish the goals…” in statute.  That is NOT what LPA said.

Districts weren’t spending all of the money they received

Taxpayer support of public education is run through as many as thirty different funds maintained by school districts.  These funds operate on a cash basis like individuals’ checking accounts; the annual beginning balances only increase when more money is deposited than is spent over the previous year.  Districts finished the 2005 school year with $458 million in their operating funds but those balances increased every year thereafter leading up to the Gannon suit filing in November, 2010.   By July 1, 2010 those balances had jumped to $775 million; the increase of $317 million represents state and local tax dollars that weren’t needed to meet educational needs.

The court did not take these facts into account.

Districts continue to operate inefficiently

Every Legislative Post Audit study of individual districts and the state collectively has found schools to be operating inefficiently.  A number of districts appearing before the K-12 Commission on Student Achievement and Efficiency over the last few months have not only admitted to being inefficient, some have said they choose to do so.

The Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) said it may be more efficient to buy products or services through the state or some type of purchasing cooperative, but doing so erodes local control.  Regardless of the rationale, these are conscious decisions to divert discretionary spending from classroom instruction and place a lower priority on student outcomes.

Districts acknowledged that it would save money to purchase fuel, vehicles, insurance, communications, curriculum, technology, internet service, software, supplies and other commonly utilized products from a statewide bid; some even requested many more opportunities to purchase from statewide bids.  They are opposed, however, to being required to participate in such efficiency opportunities.

It’s preposterous to claim to be underfunded while admitting that money is being unnecessarily spent.


It will take a long time to wade through the 139-page ruling, but even a cursory examination makes it clear that the three-judge panel didn’t let the facts get in the way of their decision.  Instead, they made what amounts to a political decision that says the Legislature must increase funding by at least $548 million to meet the Rose standards even though school districts don’t know how to measure those standards.