Topeka The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday handed down its long-awaited ruling on school finance and, along with it, a new judicial standard that may end up putting even more importance on standardized test results.
The ruling in Gannon v. Kansas revised, and in some ways expanded, the Court's previous ruling in 2005 when it said the Kansas Constitution requires the Legislature to provide enough money to cover the “actual cost” of a suitable education.
In Gannon, the Court gave more clarity about what a suitable education should be. Citing what are commonly known as the “Rose factors” — from a landmark 1989 Kentucky court case — the Kansas court effectively said that making “suitable provision for finance” of public schools means providing enough money to meet seven specific educational outcomes.
In short, that means students need to come out with “sufficient” knowledge and skills in oral and written communication, social studies, government, health, the arts and other academic and vocational training so they can understand themselves and the world around them. In addition, students should receive the academic and vocational instruction needed to succeed in college or the workplace.
The Court then remanded the question of suitable funding back to the three-judge panel that tried the case, directing them to look at the issue again under that standard.
Republican leaders, including Attorney General Derek Schmidt and House Speaker Ray Merrick, hailed that decision, saying it moves the state away from pure cost studies, like those that were used as the basis for ordering a massive spending increase following the last school finance case. They also say it gives the Legislature more leeway in funding schools.
“On the whole, this decision charts a different path for school funding litigation, compared to where we've been since about 2005,” Schmidt said. “I think it invites the legislature and policymakers to reclaim control of this process, and on the whole I would say that is good news for the state of Kansas, not only from a policy sense but from a legal sense.”
But other legal experts weren't so sure, mainly because it now opens up the question about what kind of evidence courts will now use to determine whether funding has been sufficient to meet the seven-point Rose test.
“The easiest, most available and, arguably, the most objectively verifiable evidence is test scores,” said Kansas University constitutional law professor Richard Levy. “Are test scores likely to be a dominant concern on remand? I think the answer is almost certainly yes.”
Merrick said the court's new standard “kind of validates what we've been saying for a long time: It's not about the amount of money we put in, but the outcomes we get.” And he called that “a good decision for the citizens of this state and the taxpayers.”
But there is little evidence to suggest that the Court's ruling lets the Legislature off the hook when it comes to the adequacy of current education spending. Furthermore, both the Supreme Court and the three-judge panel that will reconsider the adequacy claim have already signaled that test scores are likely to be used as a significant measure of whether the Legislature has met its constitutional duty.
“Citing test scores for the students and certain schools in the district, as well as graduation rates, each (plaintiff) superintendent essentially testified his or her district did not have the resources to provide all of its students with what they described as 'a suitable education,'” the Supreme Court wrote.
Using test scores to measure the performance of schools themselves is not new in Kansas. In 1992, at the same time the Legislature adopted the current system of funding schools on a per-pupil formula, it also enacted what is called the “Quality Performance Accreditation” system. The system uses test scores and other outcomes-based measures to determine whether individual schools should remain accredited.
And in 2001, the importance of test scores got another boost when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind law which set “Adequate Yearly Progress” targets for improvement on student test scores as a condition for receiving federal aid.
In its ruling Friday, the Supreme Court noted that in 2011, nearly one in six Kansas schools, and more than one-fourth of the districts overall, failed to meet those targets.
Since 2011, Kansas has received a waiver from No Child Left Behind. But even under the new system that replaced NCLB, test scores are still the primary measurement used to hold schools and districts accountable for their performance.
Now, under the Kansas Supreme Court's latest ruling, test scores may also become the basis for holding the Kansas Legislature accountable.