••• Education •••

School funding decision ignores facts and the Supreme Court

The recent ruling from the Shawnee County District Court finding school funding to be constitutionally inadequate comes as no surprise; this isn’t the first time the three-judge panel ignored State Supreme Court rulings and other pertinent facts.

The Supreme Court returned the panel’s January 2013 original ruling in March 2014, saying they used the wrong test to determine whether schools were adequately funded, and also issued several important new findings, including:

  • Adequacy “…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….”[i]
  • Base State Aid is not what determines adequacy, declaring “…funds from all available resources, including grants and federal assistance, should be considered.”[ii]  Further, “…state monies invested in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS) may also be a valid consideration because a stable retirement system is a factor in attracting and retaining quality educators—a key to providing an adequate education.[iii]
  • “…actual costs from studies are more akin to estimates than the certainties the panel suggested.”[iv]

The district court issued a December 2014 Opinion in response to the Supreme Court but it didn’t examine whether students are meeting or exceeding the Rose standards; the panel merely said the Rose standards have been around a long time and everyone obviously knows what they mean.  But that is not true.  School superintendents and the Department of Education admit that they can’t define or measure Rose.  The panel’s June 2015 ruling ignores the Supreme Court in this regard.

The panel’s June 2015 Opinion finds the new block grant funding inadequate for “…failure to provide funding consistent with the needs found in our Opinion of December 2014….”  That Opinion said Base State Aid should be increased based on the Augenblick & Myers 2001 cost study used in previous lawsuits, in full defiance of at least two Supreme Court findings: (1) cost studies are estimates, not certainties, and (2) all funding sources should be considered.  Their June 2015 Opinion also insulted the Supreme Court, saying, “…KPERS contributions have…never been considered by experts or other competent professionals…” in determining adequacy or if so, merely as an add-on increase.[v]  Apparently District Court judges are ‘expert’ and ‘competent’ but Supreme Court justices are not.

The June 2015 Opinion contains multiple references to districts’ funding ‘needs’ but fails to provide any valid substantiation.  The panel cited school districts’ budgets as a basis of ‘need’ despite the well-known fact that districts deliberately budget more than they plan to spend!

No one knows what schools need to achieve the necessary outcomes while making efficient use of taxpayer money, because no such analysis has ever been undertaken in Kansas.  School districts may want more, but many openly acknowledge that they choose to operate inefficiently.  Further, over $400 million of prior years’ aid was used to increase operating cash reserves by 88 percent since 2005.  The Constitution says the Legislature must make suitable provision for finance, not fund whatever districts want to spend.

The panel also used tortured, circular logic in finding Capital Outlay and Supplemental General State Aid (LOB) aid to be inequitable.  They acknowledge that the Supreme Court said equity can be met by revising those formulas so as to spend less money than the previous formulas (as the Legislature did this year), but still determined funding to be inequitable due to phantom ‘needs’ of school districts.

This is by no means a complete discussion of the panel’s general disregard for Supreme Court directives and other pertinent facts, but hopefully sufficient to make the point.  School funding will set a third consecutive record this year at an estimated $13,343 per-pupil.  Total funding has been increased by nearly $2 billion over the last ten years, yet thousands of students have been behind and achievement gaps are getting worse.

Money does matter, but it’s how the money is spent that makes the difference – not how much.

Read a version of this commentary in the Wichita Eagle here.

[i] Gannon v. State of Kansas, page 76 at http://www.kscourts.org/Cases-and-Opinions/opinions/SupCt/2014/20140307/109335.pdf

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid, page 77.

[v] Gannon v. State of Kansas, page 11 at http://www.shawneecourt.org/DocumentCenter/View/532