School funding formula must start from scratch

Dave TrabertEducation

Some school officials and legislators may be planning to modify the old school funding formula rather than write a brand new formula in 2017. But if they do, it likely would be found unconstitutional.

The Kansas Supreme Court says adequacy of funding “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 Rose standards of education capacities.

There was little, if anything,”‘reasonably calculated” about the old formula or any focus on outcomes approaching specific goals. Base state aid, weightings and even eligibility for equity funding were simply determined like most things in the Legislature – picking numbers for which enough votes can be obtained.

Any calculations done by the consulting firm Augenblick and Myers in 2001 are invalid. The Supreme Court instructed the lower court that it used the wrong test when relying upon that cost study, saying it was “more akin to estimates” than any certainties.

In considering the Gannon school funding case, Supreme Court had the benefit of knowing that A&M deliberately deviated from its own methodology and produced inflated results, thanks to a 2009 legal analysis of the Montoy school funding case written by then-Kansas Policy Institute scholar and current Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall. A&M also wasn’t focused on meeting the Rose standards.

It is not the court’s role to determine a specific level of funding but to review whether the amount was reasonably calculated to accomplish the specified goal. Indeed, the court would violate its own ruling by ordering more money to be spent as such an order couldn’t meet the “reasonably calculated” test.

A new concept introduced last March by Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Winfield and Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, proposed a method to reasonably calculate the amount of adequate funding. House Bill 2741 calculated enrollment aid for instruction, student support, staff support, administration and operations/maintenance at per-pupil levels that vary with district enrollment.

Enrollment aid was calculated as the average amount spent in each cost center in districts where at least 70 percent of not-low-income students were performing at grade-level on the 2015 state assessment test. Other types of aid were calculated differently, but their enrollment aid concept is representative of the exercise the Legislature must use to satisfy the court.

Accountability is another concept that should define the new system, as schools have never been accountable (as in, there’s a consequence) for spending money efficiently or improving outcomes.

Accountability for improved outcomes could be done with a reward-or-consequence approach. Each building could be assigned a grade (A-F) based on state assessment scores, with bonuses paid to building staff for improving a letter grade or maintaining an “A.”

Students attending “F” schools could be eligible for state-provided education savings accounts to attend the school of their choice, encouraging district officials to put resources to the most effective use to help students succeed.

This commentary was originally published in The Wichita Eagle.

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