Many lawmakers suspicious of upcoming K-12 cost study

Lori Taylor, a professor and researcher at Texas A&M University, and Jason Willis of the nonprofit education consulting firm WestEd, review notes before briefing Kansas lawmakers Feb. 23, 2018, on the study they are performing to determine how much it will cost to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court mandate to provide adequate funding fo Kansas public schools.

? State lawmakers will receive one of the most anticipated reports they have gotten in years this coming week when a pair of consultants turns in their estimate of how much it will cost to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court order to provide adequate funding for Kansas public schools.

But in a series of interviews last week, many lawmakers, particularly Democrats and moderate Republicans said they are concerned that conservative leaders who control the House and Senate had a predetermined outcome in mind when they hired Lori Taylor and Jason Willis, the consultants who are conducting the study.

“I think there’s always cause for concern, but I will withhold judgement on the finished product until I see it,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, who was one of the principal authors of the school funding plan lawmakers passed last year.

“There were a lot of unanswered questions from the meeting we had with them (Feb. 23), things that I didn’t feel were answered to my satisfaction in terms of the benchmarks we are evaluating,” she said.

Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, put it more bluntly.

“Yes, I have a big concern,” he said. “I think the entire reason she was hired was because they expect her to come in and say the schools need little or no more money. They paid her the money to get the desired result.”

Most of the critical focus has been on Taylor, a researcher and instructor at Texas A&M University and a native Kansan who received her undergraduate degrees in economics and business administration from the University of Kansas.

Much of her research has focused on regional cost differences in wages, and she has performed a number of cost studies on K-12 education for a number of states.

She has also co-written a number of papers with Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University researcher who was the state’s leading expert witness when the current school finance lawsuit, Gannon vs. Kansas, was tried before a three-judge panel in 2012.

But Taylor has been the center of some controversy in Kansas over a study she conducted that was used in a Texas school finance case that was harshly criticized by the judge in that case who said, among other things, that her numbers “simply are not credible on their face.”

Taylor defended herself against those criticisms when she appeared before a joint meeting of Kansas House and Senate education committees in February. But for many Kansas lawmakers, the doubts still linger.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said during a news conference Friday that one reason he remains suspicious is due to recent decisions that Republicans have been making in other parts of the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“Republicans who have never voted to raise any money or supported these are now finding $100 million to put back in transportation,” Ward said. “They’re raising the budgets of social services. They’re giving pay increases to legislative staff. They’re going to look at state employees getting pay increases.”

“Across the board, they are spending money out of the budget, and either they are that fiscally irresponsible, or they have an idea what the 52 percent of the budget (for K-12 education) that hasn’t been talked about is going to be, and they feel comfortable spending money on the other side of the budget,” he added.

But Republican leaders dismissed those concerns.

“She’s conducted other studies,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “It’s an out-of-state source. I don’t think there is any (indication) she already had the figures in mind before she did the study.”

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, also rejected the idea that the results of the study were predetermined.

“They’re unfounded in that,” he said. “We have no idea what she’s going to come back with. But we know that we have to update the study.”

Denning said the estimates that Kansas needs to add upwards of $600 million to its education budget are largely based on cost estimates done in 2002 and 2003, during an earlier school finance lawsuit, with those figures simply updated for inflation.

But on Wednesday last week, Denning said, another researcher, Jesse Levin of the American Institutes for Research, presented what was described as a peer review of those earlier studies and declared they were severely out of date.

“What they were doing was using numbers and data from pre-No Child Left Behind,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on School Finance.

The study is due to be turned in to the Legislature by Thursday, March 15. The following day, it will be presented to a joint meeting of the House and Senate K-12 budget committees.