Why is the system of funding Kansas public schools such a mess?
Whose fault is it? Is it the Legislature’s? The Supreme Court’s? Could it be the State Board of Education (SBOE) and the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE)? Maybe the feds? How about the schools themselves, do they play a role? Or is it all of the above?
There is no shortage of finger-pointing when it comes to assigning blame. Lots of fingers are pointed at the Legislature, many more at the Supreme Court. Still others see the root of the problem in the way the public school system operates and is managed.
So, who really is to blame? If you answered “all of the above” you’re almost there. Throw in a couple more side players for good measure and you’ve created a financing mess that resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Be clear about one thing: something this muddled cannot be laid at the feet of one entity. All have a soiled hand in this landscape. There is one thing these varied players, each of which has a significant role in educating Kansas kids, have in common when it comes to their role in public school finance: they are all disconnected from each other.
There is no need to relitigate the litigation. We all know where it stands. The seeming perpetuity of the uncertainty of public school finance has played out like a bad cable-TV reality show for decades now. And it is a function of these main actors along with some bit players. The purpose here isn’t to point a finger at one or more of them. It’s to objectively lay out the actions each has taken that has led to the never-ending story of litigation that defines Kansas school finance.
What has transpired to get to this point?
The current quagmire is being played out within the framework of Gannon v. Kansas. As the case approaches its eighth birthday, consider all that has occurred in just the past five years:
-The Kansas Supreme Court has made five separate Gannon decisions.-The Legislature has passed three different school finance laws, not one of which has been deemed constitutional.
-Another controversial education cost study has been commissioned and received by the Legislature.
-The old federal education law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has been thrown out and replaced with the much different Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
-A new, completely different state assessment is in place.
-The SBOE/KSDE has undertaken a massive, comprehensive school initiative called Kansans Can.
Each has played a significant role in the ubiquitous state of flux that defines education finance in Kansas.
A synopsis of the current condition of Kansas public school finance.
The Supreme Court established itself as the dominant player in school finance during litigation in the Montoy case that concluded over a decade ago. The Court ordered, in essence, an additional $853 million be allocated to public education by the Legislature. That amount was determined from the A&M cost study.. Ultimately, the Legislature complied with the Court.
Fast forward to 2017, seven years into the Gannon case. In Gannon V, the most recent Supreme Court opinion, the Court found the school finance law passed into law, known as SB 19, unconstitutional after previously striking down the Classroom Learning Assuring Student Success Act (CLASS), commonly referred to as block grant funding, a year earlier.
The justices, in their unanimous Gannon V decision, applied the following as the foundation for their opinion:
*They accepted as evidence “that not only was the State failing to provide approximately one-fourth of all its public school K-12 students with the basic skills of both reading and math, but that it was also leaving behind significant groups of harder-to-educate students.” They arrived at that conclusion based on a single metric – the state assessment scores. The 25% figure refers to those students scoring in Level 1 of the state assessment. Level 1 is defined by KSDE as indicating “that a student shows a limited ability to understand and use the mathematics (or English language arts) skills and knowledge needed for college and career readiness.”
*They established a causal link between money and student achievement. Specifically, the Court accepted and applied from a lower court that “substantial competent evidence supported the panel’s (district court) finding that money makes a difference in public education.” And more than just a causal link, the Court defined it as one that has an instant effect. In other words, the judges believe that money has an immediate impact on student outcomes.
*They pointed to the three post-Montoy years in which they define public education funding in “substantial compliance,” used test scores from the NCLB era, and determined that SB 19 was inadequate to address the identified 25% due to the money/achievement link.
*The Court went to great lengths in Gannon V to challenge research done by the Kansas Legislative Research Department that was used to help determine the amount of money that went into SB 19 (some $295 million additional phased in over two-years) – in particular the Court took issue with the modified successful schools model that was part of the basis for SB 19.
*They implicitly directed the Legislature to commission another cost study to “show its work” in passing a new “reasonably calculated” school finance formula.
*The Court concluded by giving the Legislature an extremely tight time-frame to remedy the situation – the deadline for briefs supporting the a new law was set at April 30, 2018. Oral arguments will commence on May 22.
The way in which the Court arrived at those decisions, the subsequent responses from the Legislature, along with the roles of the SBOE/KSDE and the local school districts show how the players in school finance are, indeed, disconnected.
The Supreme Court uses an inappropriate metric to assess student achievement.
State assessment results, which were used as evidence that 25% of Kansas students are not getting a basic education, have been deemphasized by the SBOE, KSDE, and the school districts. In fact, state assessment results are no longer included as a measure of student success since the end of NCLB.
The new federal law has dramatically changed assessments from “high stakes” to “no stakes.” There are no longer institutional consequences for poor assessment performance. In fact, in this YouTube video to teachers across the state, Education Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson told teachers that “we’ve listened…and you’ve told us several things that will make the state assessment plan and system better for you (teachers) and the schools.” It is clear that institutional convenience has replaced student outcomes as the priority when it comes to state assessments.
NCLB goals have been replaced by the new Kansans Can initiative, a lofty undertaking with the goal that “Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.” The Kansans Can vision statement asserts “the need to move away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ system that relies exclusively on state assessments.” The five outcomes of Kansans Can : Kindergarten readiness, individual plan of study, high school graduation, post-secondary success, and social/emotional growth bear no mention of state assessments.
The Supreme Court fails to understand the legislative process in establishing a deadline for new finance law.
The Court’s opinion in Gannon V, published in October of 2017, gave the Legislature implicit instructions and hard deadlines for a new school finance law. Attorneys for the state were given until April 30, 2018 to file briefs in support of a new finance law. That meant a new finance law had to wind its way through the state capitol and be signed by the governor in time for briefs to be filed. Coupled with that directive was the not-so-subtle prompting that the Legislature commission another education cost study to “reach constitutional compliance.” The Court claimed “the State certainly will have ample opportunity for any sufficient studies it may wish to have conducted and then legislatively considered.” The disconnect is that the Supreme Court failed to recognize the time it would take for such a cost study to be completed, digested, with the findings translated into legislation that could be passed in both chambers and be signed by the governor. Subsequently, the Legislature has met the deadline, but has passed a new law, Substitute for Senate Bill 423, that is disconnected from the Court’s desire to address the identified 25% of students not getting an adequate education (more on that later).
WestEd cost study commissioned by the Legislature was fated to be a non-starter.
The Legislature responded to the Court by hastily hiring the firm of WestEd to perform an education cost study. Given the methodology WestEd chose in which to base their cost estimates, it was destined not to get serious attention by the Legislature in the new education finance law. Consider:
>Similar to the Court, WestEd relied on a single metric to make cost projections – state assessment data – that is not a focus either at the state level or school district level.
>Because student performance on the state assessment is not a priority, the baseline numbers for both math and ELA are artificially low.
>As a result, cost estimates to reach the five-year targets established by WestEd – targets that were their interpretation of what would be acceptable – are artificially high. Ultimately, it was inevitable that the Legislature would dismiss the cost estimates as excessive, disregarding the study while forging a new education finance law.
Legislature passed a new finance law without “showing its work.”
Suffering from a severe case of sticker shock from the WestEd cost projections, the Legislature responded by disregarding the very study it commissioned and passed a new education finance law disconnected from the Supreme Courts direction of “showing its work.” Instead, the Legislature did as legislatures do: they engaged in the political realities of the legislative process. The House plan was to add an additional $525 million to education. The Senate plan was $275 million. With a legislative deadline nearing (not to be confused with the one imposed by the Court) passing the new funding design became a game of “63-21-1,” referring to the number of House members, Senate members, and governors needed to turn legislation into law. “Showing its work” was replaced with a “high stakes game of chicken,” which resulted in the Legislature passing a five-year, $500 million increase (signed by Governor Colyer) to education based on legislator’s perspectives ranging from a “good-faith effort” to “gamesmanship we play with our kids’ educations.”
The amount of funding in the new law is not targeted to the 25% identified by the Court.
Despite identifying 25% of Kansas students not receiving an adequate basic education, the Court specifically refrained from identifying a dollar amount they considered necessary to meet their definition of a finance law that is “reasonably calculated.” In the absence of a Court-specified dollar amount in Gannon V, an additional $600 million became the inferential target as the Legislature forged the new law. Ultimately, a compromise of $500 million was approved in Substitute for SB 423.
The disconnect is here is a clear one. Nearly all the $500 million was put in base state aid, which is not targeted to improve student outcomes. By putting it in the base, the law allows for schools to spend it on all students, not just those who, according to the Court, are not being adequately educated. Putting additional money in base state aid is a concern raised by Justice Biles during the oral argument phase of Gannon V. Biles (using a figure of one-third of students not being adequately educated) stated “it’s really none of the court’s business about the two-thirds (who are getting an adequate education). The constitutional violation is on that (one) third.” He continued with “we have to target any remedy…on that third.” In Biles’s words, “How does increasing base state aid per pupil…address that?”
Despite the Court’s directive to get more money to schools to improve achievement, districts spend the money with no accountability to that end.
In a way, it almost doesn’t matter that the Legislature put most of the money into the base. That is because the state – that being the SBOE/KSDE, the Legislature and the courts – have been complicit in allowing the school districts to spend money with virtually no oversight and accountability. In other words, no matter how dollars are “targeted” the districts are going to spend the money as they please.
There is plenty of evidence for this disconnect. During oral arguments before the Court, Gannon plaintiff lawyer Alan Rupe expressed his desire that additional money not be targeted to any individual group. His desire is to have additional money put in base student funding, because as Rupe testified to the justices “the base drives everything.”
In SB 19, the law passed in 2017 that was struck down by the Court, the Legislature added an additional $195 million to public school funding for the 2017-18 school year, with much of the funding an increase in the at-risk weighting in the funding formula. However, the districts seized upon this money by, in large part, giving existing teachers big raises as a make-up for years past. Also, there is ample evidence that for years existing at-risk money has not been targeted to at-risk students.
Is it any wonder school finance is such a mess?
The bottom line is that achievement of Kansas students is, indeed, too low as observed in the results of a variety of measures: ACT scores, NAEP, and state assessment scores. If achievement is to increase, these players must become more unified, in other word: connected.
Until the Supreme Court recognizes the legislative process and becomes more aware of the activities of the SBOE and KSDE, the problem will persist. As long as the Legislature continues to pass finance laws simply to appease a demanding Court that are not targeted toward student achievement, the problem will persist. If the SBOE and KSDE perpetuate initiatives that deemphasize student outcomes, the problem will persist. If the players at the state level continue to allow school districts spending patterns that are not accountable for improving student achievement, the problem will persist.
Regardless of what the Legislature does in the remaining session to correct a reported $80 million error in the new law, and how the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of that law, the problem will persist as long as the players remain disconnected.