Monday, March 6, 2017

Kansas Supreme Court Smacks Down Legislative Nonsense in School Funding, Offering Model for Others to Follow

Last week, the Kansas Supreme Court issued another opinion in its long running quest to ensure that the state complies with its constitutional duty to provide equal and adequate educational opportunities.  This one may have offered the most poignant smack-downs of a state legislature in some time.  The state brought the rebukes on itself by putting forward what would seem to be outrageous claims based on the facts. On the other hand, Texas got away with a similar tactic less than a year ago and it supreme court ran with it.  The Kansas Supreme Court noted as much, but emphasized, in effect, that Kansas isn’t Texas and nothing has changed since the last several times it has found that the state constitution requires it to do its job in regard to education.

The court began with a broad overview of current achievement in the state, writing that as of 2015-2016:

  • Approximately 15,000 of our state's African American students, or nearly one-half of their total student population, are not proficient in reading and math—subjects at the heart of an adequate education.
  • Approximately 33,000 Hispanic students, or more than one-third of their student population, are not proficient in reading and math. When combined with the 15,000 underperforming African American students, the sum equates to approximately all the K-12 public school students in every school district in every county with an eastern boundary beginning west of Salina—more than one-half of the state's geographic area.
  • More than one-third of our state's students who receive free and reduced lunches are not proficient in reading and math.

The evidence developed in the lower courts demonstrated that these achievement levels were “related to funding levels. Accordingly, we conclude the state's public education financing system, through its structure and implementation, is not reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the minimum constitutional standards of adequacy.”

The most compelling explanations, however, were in the details.  In the body of its opinion, the court explained:

every witness, including experts, who testified on the subject confirmed that the costs of educating Kansas students and the demands on Kansas education had only increased since 2007. The panel found, based on this testimony, that while the demands on schools increased—including the size of student populations—the available resources declined, creating a gap between demands and resources in Kansas public education.

But during that exact same period, the state was cutting basic aid to districts.   The Kansas State Board of Education (SBE) recommended that the legislature fund its basic formula at $4,492 per pupil.  Instead, the state funded it at $3780 per pupil.  The state then commissioned two school funding studies, both of which recommended funding the formula “well above this $3,780 amount and similar to those of the 2010 Commission and the SBE.”

Because of the funding cuts, districts were forced to eliminate the very programs and services that experts showed would improve educational equality and adequacy, “such as longer school days, Saturday school, all-day kindergarten, before and after school programs, extracurricular activities such as speech and debate, band and orchestra, smaller class sizes, professional development, and the employment of qualified teachers.”

“The panel also found the 2009 budget cuts forced school districts statewide to cut 2,500 positions—including 1,567 for teachers. These reductions undoubtedly increased class sizes because they occurred when statewide full-time enrollment was increasing. Additionally, teacher salaries remained largely stagnant, while some had to be reduced.”

The most significant rebuke came in regard to the state’s claims that student achievement had increased due to state action. In other words, the state wanted credit rather than fault.  The court recognized past improvements, but emphasized that “student achievement rose when funding increased after Montoy IV in 2006 but eventually fell when funding began to decrease in 2009.”  The clear reversal in state policy regarding funding demostrated that

“money makes a difference” in public education. . . . [I]t cited Kansas cost studies, particularly the legislature's LPA study of 2006. That study concluded, with ‘99% confiden[ce],’ that the relationship between student performance and district spending was positive, i.e., that a 1% increase in student performance was associated with a .83% increase in spending. And the legislatively-created 2010 Commission concluded that “Kansas students have made great academic strides ... largely due to the infusion of school funding.”

Based on these finding, the court set this summer as the deadline for the state to come up a remedy.

One can only hope that other court recognize the Kansas Supreme Court as a judicial model for leading them out of the dark era of the past decade.  As I detail here, state legislatures have been drastically cutting education and the vast majority of state supreme courts have been letting them.  Some supreme courts have even reversed prior positions in support of equal and adequate funding.  Things have gotten so bad that I argued that courts were doing long term damage not only to education but to their own institutional authority.

This new Kansas Supreme Court opinion does an excellent job of going well beyond social science debates to offer a wake-up call to its legislature and others.  The court establishes, through concrete evidence, the direct links between Kansas's reduction in education funding and student outcomes.  The link was so strong because the state had acted so abruptly and decisively.

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