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Kansas School Finance Consultant Fields Questions, Will Deliver Report Later

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
The Kansas Legislature is awaiting a consultanting report that likely will be used to defend a school finance deal it has yet to reach.

Even before releasing their results, consultants hired to guide Kansas lawmakers to a school funding plan that meets legal muster endured a grilling on Friday.

How, wondered lawmakers, would the consultants reach their conclusions on how much money school districts need to help students succeed academically? Why do the consultants seem to be excluding the overhead, non-classroom expenses of running schools from their study? And what about criticism of work they’d done in other states?

The details are as important as the stakes are high. Lawmakers inch closer by the day to a deadline for fixing school funding after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the state isn’t spending enough on education.

School districts want the legislature to pump hundreds of millions of dollars in new money into schools — drawn from a budget already strained in recent years by tumbling revenue.

But lawmakers are waiting to see what the consultants say. The study is due in mid-March.

On Friday, lawmakers got their first peek at the methods behind what will be the first significant analysis of school spending they have commissioned in more than a decade.

Past studies concluded Kansas spends too little on its schools. Those results have factored into several court rulings over the past decade and a half that found public education underfunded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

So the Republican-controlled legislature hired consultants. Lori Taylor is an economist at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service who researches school finance. WestEd is a nonprofit education consultancy. Together, they inked a $245,000 contract with the Kansas Legislature late last month to produce the new study.

Taylor and WestEd faced a barrage of questions Friday from lawmakers about the nitty gritty of their work. How, for instance, would they calculate a school district’s per pupil spending and factor in the costs of early childhood education?

Republican Rep. Melissa Rooker, a key player in trying to find a legislative solution to school finance, wondered why some out-of-classroom costs would be excluded from calculations of what schools spend to get academic results.

“We have districts that are having to cannibalize their general operating funds in order to cover the cost of transporting students,” she said.

Taylor said the study will take such situations into account.

The analysis will look at what different school districts spend and what academic outcomes — such as high-school graduation and college continuation rates — they get for that money.

Lawmakers will be under pressure to absorb the reports results and turn around a new school finance law quickly. The report is due March 15, leaving just a month and a half to craft a bill, debate and pass it, get the governor to sign it, and have lawyers at Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office prepare legal briefs defending it.

Lawyers for the state wanted lawmakers to pass a bill by early March because they were concerned there would not be enough time otherwise to finish the legal briefs defending the legislation before the Kansas Supreme Court’s April 30 deadline.

Taylor started Friday by defending her research chops after a memo made the rounds in the Legislature criticizing her work.

As reported in the Topeka Capital-Journal, a cost analysis Taylor did more than a decade ago amid a Texas school finance fight came under fire from a judge ruling on a school finance lawsuit there. Taylor’s analysis supported the idea that Texas was spending more than needed on education.

“I strongly disagree with the judge’s conclusion that our numbers were implausible,” she said. “If anything we overestimated the costs.”

The Kansas Supreme Court has said it wants to see in-depth reasoning behind the Legislature’s decisions. Last spring lawmakers and the state tried to show their work with a four-page statistical analysis that the court deemed to be cursory and methodologically questionable.

That pushed lawmakers to commission a more in-depth study this year.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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