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Response to school finance ruling should focus on what is best for students
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As children return to school after the Christmas break, they probably don’t realize the fate of their public school education career will be based on decisions by the Legislature, Gov. Sam Brownback and members of the judiciary.
The recent school finance decision by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County will no doubt increase debate over money, taxes and formulas. The underlying focus, however, of the decision should be on our Kansas students and the long term future of our state.
The court again found Kansas is failing to provide constitutionally suitable school funding. That is not because schools are failing. Based on national test scores, high school completion, preparation for college and adult education attainment, Kansas ranks among the top states in the nation - number 10 as measured across 18 different indicators. At the same time, Kansas ranks near the average in spending per pupil and in student poverty, a critical factor in student success, indicating school districts are efficiently delivering high results for a reasonable cost. By every historical measure, Kansas educational outcomes are high.
Why, then, did the court rule Kansas schools are underfunded?
First, the court noted that after several years of improvement on state reading and math tests, scores began to drop as the impact of funding cuts were felt. Likewise, Kansas scores on national tests have leveled off. Other factors, like graduation rates and college readiness and completion, are “lagging indicators” that may decline as students move through an under-funded system. This year, Kansas students will take new, tougher tests designed to measure higher skills, setting a new baseline.
Second, like all states, there are significant performance gaps among Kansas students. Low income students, who are also disproportionately represented among minority groups, lag behind their more advantaged peers on tests of basic skills, graduation and college preparation. This alone is evidence the state is not providing “suitable” funding for all students. This also represents a growing problem for the future of the state, since the number of low income students has increased significantly, whether measured by participation in free meals or by childhood poverty rates.
Third, demands for educational attainment are growing as fast - or faster - than actual achievement. By the end of this decade, nearly 70 percent of Kansas jobs are expected to require some type of postsecondary education. Currently, only 58.1 percent of Kansans ages 18-24 have some postsecondary education.
Getting more students prepared for success after high school is critical and costs more than simply attaining high school diploma. Jobs requiring higher skills and educational levels pay significantly more and pave the way for economic prosperity and personal advancement.
Kansas has recognized this fact by adopting the seven Rose factors, which include providing each and every child certain skills to advance in either academic or vocational fields.
States with the highest educational attainment spend more per pupil than low achieving states. Because their educational levels are higher, their income levels are higher and they have fewer students in poverty, which makes it easier to continue raising achievement. These states are preparing for long-term economic growth and security, just like individuals and families who make it a priority to save and invest for the long term as their incomes grow.
Unfortunately, Kansas has been doing the opposite. As the total income of Kansans has grown since the Great Recession, the state has been investing less of that income for public education. Total Kansas personal income is projected to have increased by over 25 percent since 2010, while total school funding has increased just 10 percent in the same period, and much of the funding increase has come from local districts where voters have approved building projects to improve their schools.
Total K-12 school funding is projected to be just 4.42 percent of total personal income in 2015 - the lowest level since 1985. In fact, the state could increase educational funding by $550 million and still be spending a lower share of income than the ten-year average between 2001 and 2010. That is the approximate cost of providing additional base-level funding at what the court suggested was “the bottom level of reasonableness.”
The court did not order the Governor and Legislature spend a particular amount of money. It simply found the current level of funding cannot achieve the Rose standards adopted by the Kansas Supreme Court and by the Legislature as educational goals for all students. It is up to the Governor and Legislature to respond.
The people of Kansas approved an education article of the state constitution that says the public school system exists for “intellectual, educational, scientific and vocational improvement.” The status quo is never good enough. The court found overwhelming evidence money matters to educational quality, and noted funding for current educational programs (as opposed to buildings and pensions) had fallen far below previous levels found to be constitutional.
The ruling should be seen as an opportunity by the Legislature and governor to invest in higher levels of achievement and success for Kansas students, a state economy based on high skills and wages, and stronger families and communities.