Good news! No big news from Supreme Court Gannon decision

David DorseyEducation

In the much anticipated ruling from the Supreme Court regarding K-12 school financing, the big news in the decision is that there is no big news. With Justices Beier and Stegall recusing themselves, the Court’s third ruling pursuant to Gannon v. State of Kansas, the justices ruled unanimously, and not surprisingly, that the existing K-12 education funding system education is constitutionally inadequate. However, in an encouraging departure from previous education funding decisions, the Court was more restrained. They did not prescribe a dollar amount as a remedy pursuant to their ruling.

Presented herein is a synopsis of the decision and what it means going forward. In a companion piece, KPI President Dave Trabert outlines what the Legislature’s focus should be while creating a new school finance law in light of the Court’s decision.

Summarily, the Court:

• Reaffirmed their ruling from 2014 that K-12 education funding is adequate when it is reasonably calculated to meet the Rose standards and not tied to a particular dollar amount. Specifically the justices said

We have previously held that “total spending is not the touchstone of adequacy.”…So we reiterate that the legislature should focus instead on creating a public education financing system for grades K-12 that—through structure and implementation—is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the standards set out in Rose.

• Determined that education funding is inadequate because, according to the justices’ interpretation of achievement data provided to them, of poor student outcomes and achievement gaps. The Court stated

Plaintiffs have shown through the evidence from trial—and through updated results on standardized testing since then—that not only is 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 is also leaving behind significant groups of harder-to-educate students.

• Concluded the current system of funding K-12 education, the “block grant” approach is not constitutional because it is not calculated to meet the Rose standards.

• Gave the Legislature until June 30, 2017 to craft a new formula to meet that requirement.

Even though the Court specified that it isn’t all about the amount spent they failed to recognize the large body of research that shows that it’s not the amount of money spent that makes the difference in achievement, it’s how the money is spent. They also repeated the schools’ false claims that funding changes forced them to cut programs. Per-pupil spending exceeds $13 thousand each year. Cash reserves – money schools choose not to spend – continues to grow and is now over $900 million statewide. These are but a few examples of how program cuts, as the schools refer to them, were a function of choice and not necessity.

Also, ignoring the statement from KSDE that outcomes from the previous state assessment cannot be compared to those from the new assessments is a mistake. Not only did the Court accept an apples-to-oranges comparison of outcomes, their logic allows the State Board of Education to raise the measurement bar which would increase achievement gaps, ultimately allowing them to make a case for even more money. Finally, the Court accepted as fact unchallenged and undocumented stories from school officials that the Legislature’s decisions forced them to cut programs. The state did an inadequate job of refuting those claims by focusing on narrow facts while failing to provide the bigger picture of the true relationship between spending and outcomes.

So what does this mean for the Legislature going forward? It puts them under the gun for crafting a new formula this legislative session. The decision also provides sort of a framework for the new formula. That will require the Legislature to make some hard, and potentially politically unpopular decisions because they can neither a) extend “block grant” funding, even by increasing the pot, nor b) resurrect the old SDFQPA formula (which is what the Kansas education establishment would like to see). Neither of those is outcomes-based, which is a requirement the Court has now RE-affirmed. It also forces the Legislature to do the right thing by focusing on education achievement, and in particular the achievement gap.

The Court’s position is a welcome pivot – one initially signaled in the opening round of Gannon in 2014 – from the one pursuant to the Montoy decision over a decade ago. In that case, the Court clearly crossed into legislating from the bench by prescribing an additional $850 million be provided to K-12 education. Whether that position holds will be tested when the Court makes a fourth (and hopefully final) ruling after Kansas gets a new K-12 education finance law.

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