Tuesday, June 26, 2018

After Fifteen Years of Litigation, Kansas Is on the Verge of Finally Adequately and Equitably Funding Its Schools

Yesterday, the Kansas Supreme Court issued its third decision in two years regarding the state’s school funding practices.  Yet again, the court found that the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty.  This time, however, the court found that the state was close. 

The two big issues before the court were the equality of its financing system and the adequacy.  The court found that the state had finally developed a plan that would achieve equitable access to school funding.  The prior problem with equity involved what the state calls a “Local Option Budget.” 

The LOB allowed local districts to supplement the funds they received from the state.  Without the local option funds, however, a district would fail to generate the total “foundation aid” necessary to deliver basic education.  The LOB had to be at least 15% of the district received from the state. 

Under the prior law, not all local districts had the capacity to meet their LOB targets.  The new law, according to the court, cures the problem by taking into account the percentage of at-risk students a district serves.  Those with higher percentages will calculate their LOB requirement (and the funds they are entitled to from the state) differently than other districts.  In short, high-need districts will receive more from the state and be expected to generate less locally.  This, reasoned the court, would create equity.

The court, however, found that the state has still failed to fund its schools adequately.  In other words, while the districts have equal access to funding now, the amount they have access to is still not enough. But the gap between current funds and adequacy has shrunk.  The court’s primary concern in the new opinion was that the state had not kept its adequacy calculations in line with inflation. 

The court reasoned that the state come up with a method a few years ago to reasonably calculate the level of funding necessary to reach adequacy.  While there are other higher estimates out there, the court accepted the notion that the state’s estimate would work. But the state has failed to apply the appropriate inflation increases in some years.  If the state cures this relatively small problem, it will have finally, after a decade of litigation, finally come into constitutional compliance.

For the skeptic, it is also worth noting that the court reiterated the basic principle that money does, in fact, matter to student outcomes—and not just in general.  Specific studies of money and achievement in Kansas have shown

that student achievement rose when funding increased after Montoy IV but eventually fell when funding began to decrease in 2009[]. And based upon its finding "that a correlation existed between funding and achievement, the panel determined the inadequacy was caused by underfunding."

I would be remiss, however, if I did not offer one final question. What will the state do for the lost generation? The first equity case in the state was decided by the Kansas Supreme Court on January 24, 2003.  The state has had momentary periods in which it seemed to provide equity, but never adequacy and equity.  The past 15 years, and many that preceded it, were best typified by enormous inequality and inadequacy. That the state has finally inched close to goal of simultaneously providing equity and adequacy means absolutely nothing for the generation (or generations) of students who did not get that opportunity.

Solutions for the lost generation are not easy and I will not purport to offer them here.  I would only emphasize that legislative foot dragging and the failure or inability of courts to stop it necessarily means generations are lost.  There are, in other words, serious and maybe irreparable costs to constitutional violations in education. To the Kansas Supreme Court's credit, it pushed the state probably as hard as any court in the nation.  And unlike others, it did not simply walk away when things got tough.



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