A Student-Focused Response to the Kansas Supreme Court

Dave TrabertEducation

There’s good basis for the growing sentiment to defy the recent Kansas Supreme Court opinion on school funding in Gannon, but that would only perpetuate the real education crisis – low achievement levels overall and horrendous achievement gaps for low income students.

The time it would take to close achievement gaps for low income students in Kansas once was measured in decades, but despite record-setting funding (nearly $2 billion more since 2005), the time must now be measured in centuries.  Claims that Kansas is among the ten best states for student achievement are bunk; national rankings on ACT and NAEP range from the mid-teens to the mid-thirties.  College and career readiness as measured by ACT and the state assessment is also abysmal.

Kansans overwhelmingly believe schools should be held accountable for outcomes (as in, there’s a consequence for not improving student achievement) but that has never been the case in Kansas.  The latest SurveyUSA poll shows 69 percent of Kansans agree and only 21 percent disagree; that sentiment holds across all ideological and geographic boundaries but the education lobby vociferously opposes real accountability measures.  Education officials and the courts cling to the false claim that simply spending more money will cause outcomes to improve, but if that were true, there would be no achievement gaps in Kansas and outcomes across the nation would be dramatically higher.

The court noted Legislative Post Audit’s comment on finding correlation between spending and achievement based on state assessment scores but forgot to mention that the State Board monkeyed with the performance standards during that period and that no such correlation could have been found on ACT and NAEP.  Further, the court ignored LPA’s statement that “Educational research offers mixed opinions about whether increased spending for educational research is related to improved student performance” and “…many researchers think more and better studies are needed to help determine under which circumstances additional resources actually lead to better outcomes.”  The Legislature used the Successful Schools methodology to reasonably calculate funding and even though that was premise upon which the Montoy court ordered more funding, the court now absurdly rejects it.  The court also falsely claimed LPA “expressly rejected” that methodology in its 2006 study but LPA didn’t reject anything; it merely used another accepted methodology.

Earlier, the Kansas Supreme Court said only about 25 percent of students weren’t getting the education they deserve but now it threatens to deprive all students of an education if its ransom isn’t paid.   Paying $600 million to $1.4 billion more annually to avoid a school shutdown wouldn’t help students but it would crush taxpayers and/or crowd out funding for other services, so legislators in both parties should work together on a plan to ensure that students can be educated:

  1. Pass a new formula that reasonably calculates – a term from March 2014 court guidance – adequate funding and holds schools accountable for improving outcomes. Include financial rewards for improvement but allow students in failing schools to escape with a scholarship to go elsewhere.  Funding should be determined by the Legislature, not the State Board of Education, school lawyers or even the Court.  The Court’s role is merely to determine whether there was anything unreasonable in the Legislature’s calculations.
  2. Prevent the court from shutting off the money flow to schools by authorizing the Department of Administration or Division of Budget to pay schools if necessary.
  3. In the event local school boards choose not to open in response to a court-ordered shutdown, allow students in those districts to go elsewhere with a state-funded scholarship.

School unions will threaten expulsion for any legislator that signs on to this approach but if that’s the price of standing up for students, it’s a price worth paying.

Versions of this commentary appeared in the Kansas City Star and the Wichita Eagle.

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