A report meant to guide Kansas school spending appears to have overshot the mark by more than half a billion dollars.
Consultants who wrote the document chased aggressive academic gains that exceed outcomes even in some of the state’s highest-performing schools.
Goals the authors chose outpace even the state’s already optimistic pledges to the federal government for raising graduation rates and test scores by 2030, marks that education advocates caution haven’t been achieved anywhere in the country.
“That’s been kind of what my standard reaction has been — it is much more aggressive than any other plan,” Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said of the new school finance analysis. “But that’s also part of the reason it’s so expensive.”
The report — commissioned by lawmakers for $245,000 — sent shock waves through the Capitol last month for suggesting it could take as much as $2 billion to meet the state’s education obligations.
Though lawmakers are not seriously considering adding that much money to K-12 education, the $2 billion figure made headlines across the state. The report could remain a reference point in school spending debates for years to come.
Reports from the early and mid-2000s that found Kansas schools underfunded continue to play a prominent role in political and legal arguments more than a decade later.
Yet questions surrounding the new report’s academic targets, combined with mistakes throughout the document, undermine a potentially critical document.
With a deadline fast approaching to settle contentious political battles about school financing and defend the legislature’s spending decisions in court, lawmakers wanted the report in part to help build their defense.
In an interview, Jason Willis, of the nonprofit education consultancy WestEd, agreed the report he co-wrote with Texas A&M University professor Lori Taylor shoots for academic progress that’s more aggressive than Kansas’ commitments to the federal government.
Those commitments, unveiled last year, involve reaching a 95 percent high-school graduation rate by 2030. That same year, Kansas wants 75 percent of students to be on track in math and English for college-level work.
The Kansas State Department of Education set those goals and then-Gov. Sam Brownback endorsed them.
To come up with the $2.1 billion figure, Taylor and Willis imagined Kansas reaching a 95 percent graduation rate eight years earlier. In their scenario, math and reading scores and high school graduation rates would all exceed the current 90th percentile of school districts — within five years.
Asked repeatedly how he and Taylor chose those targets and whether they are reasonable or achievable, Willis alternated between steering the conversation elsewhere, saying the decision was data- and policy-driven, and calling the targets that he and Taylor chose an “opinion.”
“We used a whole series of reference points,” he said.
Willis said that his research with Taylor turned up evidence that such rapid academic progress — including growth on state math tests in excess of 5 percentage points per year — is reasonable to expect.
He could offer no specifics to back his assertions. Nor did he explain why the academic targets that he and Taylor ultimately used don’t match the description in the report of how he and Taylor chose them.
The report says the pair homed in on their annual academic growth targets by checking three things: First was what the state pledged to federal education officials it would accomplish by 2030. Next was current academic achievement at some of the highest-performing school districts. And last was the pace of academic achievement in Kansas in the 2000s when courts most recently said schools were constitutionally funded.
Yet the targets ultimately used were more aggressive than that. The current 90th percentile of Kansas school districts, for example, graduate 91 percent of their students. Yet he and Taylor’s calculations aim for a statewide graduation rate “well in excess of” 95 percent by 2022.
Willis couldn’t clarify why. He confirmed no data sources or state policies outside of those specified in the report were used to set the targets.
The Kansas News Service also emailed its list of detailed questions about the academic targets to Willis and Taylor.
Taylor said she was not available for an interview, but in an email described the cost estimates as meant to “bring every district up to performance levels consistent with our reading of state goals and court requirements.”
Yet education policy experts familiar with Kansas who viewed the report, not all of whom spoke for the record, said it left them with more questions than answers about why the authors thought the goals they picked were appropriate.
The Kansas State Department of Education didn’t respond to an inquiry about how the report aligns with its own goals.
The cost difference
Adjusting the academic targets in the report to align with Kansas’ 2030 aims would drop the $2.1 billion price by more than half a billion dollars based on tables not included in the report but provided by the authors to lawmakers later.
Willis confirmed the Kansas News Service’s math.
The $2.1 billion figure was one of two that the authors offered, as Taylor said, to identify how much Kansas needs to spend to fulfill education obligations set out by the Kansas Supreme Court, which has found current public school funding unconstitutional.
The cheaper estimate in the report is $1.79 billion, but that, too, appears to be half a billion dollars too high for similar reasons.
Regardless, lawmakers are likely to settle on something closer to what school districts suing the state have been seeking. Those districts have argued for at least $600 million.
Tallman, of the school boards association, said Kansas Supreme Court justices will need to decide what is “constitutionally acceptable.”
Kansas contracted with Taylor and WestEd in late January and received their analysis on March 15. Past studies of Kansas school finance have taken upwards of six months.
The report is riddled with mistakes — grammar errors, dummy text, and in some places numbers written into the narrative that don’t match math shown in tables. At least one table is missing and a map of Kansas shows the state with the Kansas City-Johnson County metro missing from its borders.
Taylor said she and Willis have apologized to lawmakers, and that the errors don’t affect the report’s conclusions.
“I can assure you that the flaws were cosmetic,” she said in an email.
But the mistakes have opened the door for doubt. Sen. Molly Baumgardner, head of the Senate’s school finance committee, said she tasked legislative research staff with helping lawmakers determine which numbers in the report are typos.
“Dates, benchmark numbers, fiscal numbers,” she said. “Anything that has a number, it’s really difficult for us to ascertain if it’s a typo.”
Three school finance specialists that read the Taylor-WestEd report and are otherwise familiar with Taylor’s academic work praised her financial modeling, with some caveats. Two had conducted validity checks on the school finance calculations, but hadn’t reviewed the report’s underlying academic targets. The third said he was unclear on why Taylor and WestEd picked those targets.
Jesse Levin, of the American Institutes for Research, was hired by lawmakers to critique the report. Professor Bruce Baker, of Rutgers University, analyzed it for the plaintiff school districts that are suing the state. School finance consultant Richard Seder, who has done work for Colorado and testified in school finance lawsuits in other states, also read it.
“It’s certainly solid work,” Baker said.
Among the concerns that he, Levin and Seder raised: The authors should have included more documentation in the report of how they did their work.
“Without knowing that,” Seder said, “we're left with a lot of hope and faith.”
They also said the Taylor-WestEd calculations appear to give too much money to Kansas’ largest school districts, some of which are already relatively affluent. Levin said it’s unclear if that affects the overall cost estimates. Baker said his best guess is it adds several tens of millions of dollars to them.
The Taylor-WestEd approach also shies away from reducing funding for school districts that are outperforming state goals.
“Here is money that is above and beyond what a district might need,” Levin said. Since that money could be spent elsewhere, “it really undermines the whole equity intent.”
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