Editorial: Better plan for schools needed

Consultants aren’t delivering the news Kansas lawmakers want to hear on school finance.

First, consultant Lori Taylor was hired by legislators to study what it would take to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court order to adequately fund the state’s public schools. Taylor completed the study last month and recently delivered the news to lawmakers that they would need to come up with $1.8 billion to $2.1 billion in new annual school spending to meet the court’s demands.

Taylor’s numbers were about four times what most lawmakers had hoped. They hired Jesse Levin, a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., to conduct a peer review of Taylor’s cost study.

Levin’s conclusion? Taylor nailed it.

“First of all, I thought it was a very, very good study,” Levin told a joint meeting of the House and Senate K-12 budget committees. “I thought it was fairly cutting-edge and done very, very well.”

That’s not exactly music to legislators’ ears.

The Kansas Supreme Court has said the state must file briefs with the court no later than April 30, detailing what lawmakers did to pass a funding plan that will meet constitutional muster. That means lawmakers are under a tight deadline to pass a new funding plan before their scheduled adjournment on Friday.

Given what Taylor and Levin have said, it’s hard to believe the current plan legislators are working on will be acceptable.

On Wednesday, the night before Levin’s review was released, the House Education Budget Committee passed a new plan that would phase in $522 million in additional money for schools over the next five years.

The plan would add a little more than $29 million in new “base” state aid money for the upcoming 2018-2019 school year on top of the $98 million in new money that lawmakers approved last year. Then it would gradually increase state aid by $712 per student over the next four years, reaching $4,718 per-pupil in the 2022-2023 school year.

Gov. Jeff Colyer applauded lawmakers for making progress. Colyer has said a new school funding plan should not require a tax increase. The governor’s right if lawmakers go forward with their plan to low-ball the court.

Taylor’s study said $2 billion a year in new funding is needed to get all students to grade-level performance on statewide reading and math exams and ensure that at least 60 percent of them are prepared to enter college by the time they graduate. That’s a minimal expectation.

There’s a lot riding on the school funding decision. The court has said it will not allow the state to operate schools under an unconstitutional funding system beyond June 30.

Given their own consultants’ data, lawmakers have to know $522 million in new funding by 2022-23 is woefully inadequate. They need a better plan, and they need it soon.