A recent poll by a conservative lobby group suggests that a large number of Kansans oppose the idea of courts determining how much money should be spent on public schools.
But advocates for public schools are criticizing the poll, saying the questions were loaded with false or misleading information intended to sway the way people would respond.
The poll was conducted Dec. 18-19 by SurveyUSA on behalf of Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that lobbies for lower taxes, limited government and “school choice” initiatives such as charter schools and vouchers.
The first question in the poll asked respondents for their opinions about a school finance lawsuit now pending before the Kansas Supreme Court. The appeal challenges a lower court ruling that said the Kansas Legislature has violated the state constitution's requirement to provide adequate funding for public schools.
The trial court ordered the Legislature to increase state funding by nearly 15 percent, to $4,492 per pupil — the amount already provided for in statute, but which the Legislature has not fully funded through appropriations.
In asking people's opinion about the courts' role in deciding such a case, the KPI poll first explained the case differently:
“A state court has effectively ordered legislators to increase school funding by $443 million, which would also automatically increase local property taxes by another $154 million,” the survey stated. “Regardless of whether you believe schools are adequately funded, how would you respond to this statement: It is appropriate for the courts to have final say on decisions of how much taxpayer money is spent on education.”
The survey of 500 adults from throughout the state showed the public almost evenly divided on the issue, with half saying they disagreed, and 47 percent saying they agreed. The survey had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points either way.
KPI president Dave Trabert said the claim that local property taxes would rise as a result of the decision was based on an assumption that if the state was ordered to increase its share of education funding, then local districts would automatically allow their “local option budgets,” or LOBs, to rise accordingly.
“Unless local school boards proactively vote to reduce their LOB rates, local taxes would increase by default,” Trabert said in an email to the Journal-World.
But others familiar with the lawsuit said the premise of the question was misleading.
Under state law, districts can supplement their base budgets by up to 31 percent with money raised from local property taxes. But those LOBs must be set each year by local school boards as part of their annual budgeting process.
"Nothing is automatic," said John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. "The Legislature would determine how best to fund the schools, not the courts. KPI knows this and yet they persist in fear mongering."
Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll noted that some districts were forced to raise their LOBs to make up for cuts in state funding, and so restoring those state cuts could lead to cuts in local taxes.
"In some districts they've had to jack (up) their local mill rate, if they wanted to keep their funding at the same level," he said. "So they either had to choose to cut their funding or increase their mill rate."
SurveyUSA CEO Jay Leve defended the poll and the wording of the questions.
"We work with our clients in collaboration and ask questions we believe are accurate," Leve said. "We don't intentionally put false premises in any question."
The Supreme Court has not indicated when it will rule on that case, but many observers expect it around the same time the Kansas Legislature begins its 2014 session in January.