Topeka Alan Rupe, the attorney representing school districts seeking more dollars, said the Legislature's recently released school cost study was like "deja vu."
After seven years of litigation, lower-court and Kansas Supreme Court decisions, and last summer's special legislative session, the state is still not doing the right thing when it comes to school finance, he said.
"We're still under-funding education," Rupe said last week after listening to the Legislative Division of Post Audit explain its new 300-page study.
"The kids in poverty, the English as a second language kids, the kids in those large urban and mid-sized districts, are the kids that cost the most to educate," he said.
"We are still not spending the money we need to spend to make education adequate for them."
Not only is the state under-funding the $3 billion school system by a minimum of $400 million, according to the cost study, but it's also failing to address the root causes of Rupe's lawsuit: funding the programs to help the children disadvantaged by poverty or lack of English proficiency.
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)
"The state's method of funding at-risk services has little relationship to the students actually served," the report states. And for what are called bilingual programs for students learning English, the report states, "The state's basis for funding doesn't link funding with need."
The study is by most accounts the most important report on Kansas school funding in a decade, and will be the basis for legislative debate this session.
Last year, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the school finance system was unconstitutional because it under-funded all students, especially students from low-income households and those with limited English proficiency. The court told lawmakers to increase funding and direct it to the most disadvantaged students.
Lawmakers increased funding $290 million, or about 10 percent overall, and commissioned the Post Audit study to determine what to do next.
As part of that $290 million increase, the Legislature more than doubled what is called at-risk funding to school districts, bringing it to $111.2 million for the current school year. The Legislature also more than doubled bilingual funding, up to $22 million.
But the school cost study shows there are no concrete guidelines on identifying the children those dollars are aimed at, nor are there parameters of what kind of programs would be best to serve them.
"It goes back to that accountability piece," said Rep. Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center, and chair of the House Education Committee. "We need to make sure it's working."
Decker said there needs to be a balance between state and local control over how local districts spend the at-risk funding.
"It does have to be tailored to the school district, but we can also look at things that work and things that don't work.
"If a school has been doing a program for a number of years and not getting results out of it, it's time to look at a different program," she said.
The Lawrence school district receives approximately $1.9 million from the state annually to assist at-risk students, and $384,000 in bilingual funds.
The funding has been used to beef up teaching of at-risk students in specific subject areas, and to hire more teachers to lower class sizes in schools with larger populations of at-risk students.
To get a better handle on picking programs that work with at-risk students, the Legislature last year set up an At-Risk Council that will make recommendations to lawmakers.
The council started work in December, and is headed by former state education commissioner Andy Tompkins, now a professor at Kansas University.
Tompkins said local districts are given latitude in designing at-risk programs to suit their needs.
"We've all known that it is not a pure science," he said. "We are trying to figure out how to do that, and get the money to the places that you know need it the most."
He said the council will analyze what programs are working nationwide to see if that information could be applied to Kansas.
But the council is not scheduled to issue a report until October 2007.
The cost study also found that some districts were reporting that they had no bilingual students, when census data would indicate otherwise.
Conversely, many districts were spending much more to teach bilingual students than what they received in state aid.
"Bilingual is kind of a new phenomenon that has truly exploded over the last few years," Decker said.
Both the at-risk and Hispanic populations are booming in the Kansas public school system.
The number of free-lunch students has increased 26 percent between the 1999-2000 school year and the 2004-2005 school year. English as a second language students grew by a similar percentage. Meanwhile the total public school population has remained relatively flat over the past decade.
Rupe, the attorney for plaintiff school districts, said state policymakers need to study the new cost analysis, which he said, "sounded a lot like our closing argument."
He added, "Certainly the focus on English as a second language kids, kids in poverty, at-risk kids, all of that is exactly what caused these plaintiffs to file the lawsuit in the first place.
"The fact is, the kids of Kansas with the most needs, need the most money in public education."