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Consultant Suggests Kansas Schools Could Need $450 Million to $2 Billion More

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
A consultant's report released Friday suggests the possibility that more money than previously thought might be needed for local schools

(This story has been updated.)

Getting most Kansas schoolchildren doing well enough in math and reading to stay on track for college could cost an extra $2 billion a year — or roughly half what the state already spends on aid to local schools.

The figure comes from a report released Friday that lawmakers commissioned to help them judge the costs of getting better classroom results and to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court order.

Dozens of school districts that have been suing the state for seven years wanted at least $600 million to meet demands in the state’s constitution. They accuse the state of underfunding schools and reneging on court-approved plan in the mid-2000s that called for higher funding.

A spokesman for Kansas City, Kansas, schools said the report — which lays out funding increase scenarios ranging from $450 million to $2 billion — validates the plaintiffs’ legal argument that money matters.

“It says if we're going to get substantially higher outcomes,” David Smith said, “then we need to spend more money.”

The analysis — by external consultants — matters because Republican legislative leaders had hoped it could form the basis of their rationale to the Kansas Supreme Court for whatever amount they ultimately spend on schools this spring.

Read the consultants' report

The legislature hired the consultants following a court order to fix school funding. At least one legislative leader had sticker shock after seeing the report. Senate President Susan Wagle said following the study’s recommendations would mean massive cuts to other state services, and corresponding tax hikes.

"There will be major losers at the end of this."

“There will be major losers at the end of this,” Wagle said, “and that will be either the Kansas taxpayers or other state services whose funding stream will be cut.”

In a statement, she said the money could only come from a major tax increase and cuts to “health care, social services, transportation, and higher education all in the favor of schools.”

Democrats appeared happy with the report. Yet they had initially called into question one of the author’s credentials, apparently concerned the study might give legislators political and legal cover to spend less than $600 million.

People who had long advocated for more robust state spending on local schools took vindication from the consultants’ report.

“It proves what we’ve been saying in the legislature and in the courts,” said House Democratic Leader Jim Ward. “We’ve underfunded schools significantly over a long period of time. … It’s going to be expensive to fix it.”

The Kansas Supreme Court has charged lawmakers with coming up with a school funding formula aimed at closing achievement gaps.

Like past studies, Friday’s report suggests more money is needed to get results for students.

Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner, who heads the Senate education committee, was more uncertain of what the 160-page report means. Lawmakers received it at 1 p.m. Friday and scrambled to digest it.

“OK, we don’t know exactly what it says,” she said. “We’re going to read and we’ll go from there.”

"We don't know exactly what it says."

Republicans and Democrats alike want to know whether the report contains errors or other problems, such as how student enrollment was calculated. The report’s authors will come to Topeka Monday to answer questions.

The report lays out three spending options. The cheapest suggests Kansas schools, after reaching their academic target of graduating 95 percent of students, would need an extra $450 million annually to maintain that.

But the authors say this maintenance money alone wouldn’t close achievement gaps. It would cost $1.79 billion to get 90 percent of students on grade level in math and reading by 2022, and $2.07 billion to get 60 percent of them at the levels in those subjects that they’ll need for college.

Those calculations don’t specify where that money should come from. Schools are funded with a combination of state, local and federal dollars.

Curtis Tideman, a lawyer for the House, told lawmakers the report “expands probably the number of different choices that the legislature has.”

“There’s a possibility of using pieces” of the report’s analysis, he said. “There are a number of different ways this report might be used."

The Kansas Supreme Court was highly critical last year when the Legislature voted for a $300 million increase to schools and the state then argued to the court that a quick four-page statistical analysis of school spendingvalidated the amount.

It's the first comprehensive look at the cost of education in Kansas in more than a decade.

That prompted legislative leaders to commission a detailed study for $245,000 from Texas A&M University economist Lori Taylor and the non-profit consulting and research firm WestEd inked a for analysis.

It’s the first comprehensive look at the cost of education in Kansas in more than a decade.

Previous studies commissioned by the Legislature concluded public education was underfunded, and school districts suing the state say following the guidelines in those studies — adjusted for inflation — would mean adding around $1.7 billion to schools.

A plan to increase K-12 funding in the mid-2000s was derailed by economic recession. After Sam Brownback became governor in 2011, the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit argue, he cut income taxes instead of getting the school finance plan back on track.

When lawmakers agreed last spring to hike school spending by $300 million annually, phased in over two years, the plaintiffs argued inflation would eat up half of that increase. They also said too little would be left to make a dent in the problem Kansas is trying to fix — the fact that a quarter of its students are struggling with basic math and reading.

In October, the Kansas Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs. It wants Kansas schools to have enough resources to help kids acquire seven key skill sets before they graduate.

In addition to problems with overall funding, the justices identified four ways in which Kansas’ school funding system was unfair to poorer school districts, including a tailored injection of money that benefited two Johnson County school districts alone.

(This story has been corrected to clarify the spending options based on a followup memo from the report's authors to lawmakers.)

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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