Topeka — The future of school finance in Kansas may depend, in part, on a pair of New Yorkers.
Syracuse University professors William Duncombe and John Yinger have been hired by the state to figure out how much money will be needed to get Kansas students reading and writing at proficient levels.
That "outcomes-based" approach has been emphasized by the federal No Child Left Behind law and the Kansas Supreme Court in its recent orders on school finance, which resulted in a $290 million increase for schools this year - and possibly greater amounts in coming years.
Duncombe and Yinger have declined to talk about the study. But even though they are based 1,200 miles away, they are familiar with the ins and outs of Kansas' complex school finance system.
More about school finance
- Webcast of live arguments before the Kansas Supreme Court (requires Windows Media Player)
- Brief of the Montoy suit (.pdf)
- Timeline of events in school finance lawsuit
- 6News video: School finance bill to face court
- Plaintiffs: School finance bill fails grade (06-13-06)
- State wants high court to dismiss school suit (06-02-06)
- Legislature approves school finance plan (05-10-06)
- Chat with Bob Corkins, Kansas Education Commissioner (02-02-06)
- House roll call on $148.4 million school finance plan (07-07-05)
- Supt. Weseman's contingency plan (07-06-05)
- More about school finance »
- Conference Committee on Senate Bill 549
- House bill info
- Senate bill info
- Kansas public schools cost study
- Kansas public schools cost study executive summary
- Public Education Finances 2004 (.pdf)
- Senate roll call on $148.4 million school finance plan
- Supreme Court's Show Cause Order (07-02-05)
- Supreme Court's Order Denying Extension (.pdf)
- Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 1603 (.pdf)
- Supplemental Note on Resolution No. 1603 (.pdf)
A former Kansas University professor who has collaborated with Duncombe said previous studies showed that Kansas could not continue to lower property taxes while schools required additional funding.
"There is going to be some pain felt," said Jocelyn Johnston, now a professor at American University in Washington, D.C. "I don't think the state wants to sacrifice their good reputation as far as education is concerned."
Other experts warn, however, that money won't be the sole factor in educating students.
"Here in Lawrence, some schools are judged outstanding and some are judged wanting," said John Poggio, co-director for the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at Kansas University. "They're basically all working out of the same pot of money, so how do you have that?"
Duncombe's earlier research into Kansas education might provide a clue to his next recommendations.
With Johnston, Duncombe wrote a 1998 research paper saying Kansas' 1992 school finance reforms were among the most far-reaching in the nation, transferring "significant public school funding decisions - both taxing and spending - to the state."
In order to get the reforms passed, Duncombe wrote, the Legislature instituted the local option budget that allowed school districts to raise local tax dollars for education.
The LOB ran counter to establishing statewide funding equity, Duncombe wrote, but "it could be viewed as a moderate price to pay for what it permits: political acceptance, in a politically conservative state, of a highly centralized, explicitly redistributive government initiative."
By 2004, however, Duncombe and Johnston wrote, in an article included in a book edited by Yinger, that equity in school funding was unraveling because of a combination of the local option budget, extra state funding for small districts and the failure of the state to increase school funding.
"The stage has been set for a major conflict between the local interests that deal daily with education needs and the state policymakers who have, so far, refused to consider raising new revenue to meet their public school funding responsibilities," they wrote.
That conflict played out this year before the state Supreme Court, which ordered lawmakers to increase school funding.
And it continues, with a court order to come up with a study that shows how much funding is necessary to provide an equal educational opportunity for each of Kansas' 450,000 students.
The Legislative Division of Post Audit will conduct one portion of the study, but is paying Duncombe and Yinger $49,094 for the outcomes-based portion of the study.
The previous papers by Duncombe and Johnston noted that small districts need extra state money to stay open.
"If the state is willing to pay lots of bucks to keep them open, fine," said Johnston, who recently left KU after 12 years in the Public Administration department. "That is again where you balance the politics and economics and try to come up with a solution."
So far, a 2001 study by consultants Augenblick and Myers has been the basis for school finance cost estimates by the Supreme Court. That study - resented by many state lawmakers - indicates at least $568 million more must to be pumped into the $3 billion school system.
In their proposal to the audit division, Duncombe and Yinger said they would use a "cost function" method to develop estimates on what should be spent in schools. Yinger helped develop the cost function method and has applied it to schools in Nebraska and New York, and local governments in Massachusetts.
The approach takes a huge amount of data on spending and student needs to develop a cost index that is then factored in with measures outside a district's control, such as high populations of disadvantaged students and the costs of hiring quality teachers.
The professors, who intend to travel to Topeka several times, say they hope to finish the report by Dec. 1.
Johnston said she was confident the two professors would do excellent work.
"They are the experts," she said.