Topeka — What is the true cost of a public school education in Kansas?
That is the $568 million-tax-increase question.
Last week, the Legislature completed a bruising special session under a court order to increase school funding.
Lawmakers added $290 million to school coffers for the coming academic year, funded through higher-than-expected tax receipts and dipping into cash reserves.
The Kansas Supreme Court has approved the new school finance legislation on an interim basis.
But the other shoe will drop in January.
The court has ruled that a constitutional school finance system must provide enough dollars so that the state's 450,000 students have a chance at reaching a proficient academic level.
That worries many lawmakers because the only consultants' study on education costs before the court states that for that to happen, at least $568 million more must be pumped into the $3 billion system.
Combined with other funding pressures on the horizon, such an increase for schools would require a tax increase, most state leaders believe.
"This state is facing a fiscal implosion of economic contraction and stagnation once the fiscal burden ordered by the court is placed upon the 2.7 million Kansans," said Karl Peterjohn, leader of the anti-tax Kansas Taxpayers Network.
Not satisfied with the cost study used as evidence in the school finance lawsuit, the Legislature has ordered another study that will be conducted by a quiet arm of state government called the Legislative Division of Post Audit.
"A lot is riding on the post-audit study," said House Democratic Leader Dennis McKinney, of Greensburg.
"The post-audit study is crucial because we have to provide actual costs of a suitable education," said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita.
The agency is run by Barb Hinton, who has been with the division since 1977 and has been auditor for the past 14 years.
Hinton said she doesn't know how much the study will end up costing, but she has thrown her entire staff of 26 people into it, putting all other business on hold.
"It's one of the most important questions the Legislature wants to have answered," Hinton said. The study will be done by January when the regular legislative session starts.
She dismissed any questions that the study could be influenced by lawmakers.
"We are considered to be independent. The Legislature never has said, 'This is what we want you to find,'" she said.
Hinton has read the Augenblick & Myers school finance study used by the court, and her staff has read 33 education cost studies from across the country to get a sense of what the trends are in analyzing education costs. The agency also will hire an outside consultant to work on the effort.
Alan Rupe, the attorney who represents plaintiff school districts that won the lawsuit against the state, said the study was crucial to the future of school funding.
"My clients and I are going to be like chickens on a June bug when it comes to watching that study," Rupe said.
He said he believed the study's price tag would be close to the Augenblick & Myers report.
Inputs and outputs
Essentially, the study will cover two broad topics. One will estimate how much it should cost school districts to deliver the curriculum, services and programs mandated by state law.
The more difficult piece will be determining the costs associated with meeting performance standards set by the State Board of Education, such as reaching proficiency levels in math and reading. That was the part ordered by the court, which said funding the costs of "outputs" - measurable standards of student proficiency - was integral to any school finance system.
"Such outputs are necessary elements of a constitutionally adequate education and must be funded by the ultimate financing formula adopted by the Legislature," the court said in its June decision.
The litigation started in 1999 when parents in several school districts alleged the state was underfunding schools and distributing the money in an unfair manner to the benefit of more wealthy school districts.
Rupe said if the post-audit study were done well and the Legislature followed through with the funding that is necessary, that could signal an end to the lawsuit and the lawyers "can close their suitcases and go home."
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)