Study calling for $2B in K-12 spending found valid by independent reviewer

photo by: Peter Hancock

Jesse Levin of the American Institutes for Research tells Kansas lawmakers that a study suggesting the state needs to add roughly $2 billion in new spending on K-12 education was valid in both its methods and its findings.

? A recent study that showed Kansas needs to spend roughly $2 billion a year more in K-12 education funding was valid in both its methods and its findings, an independent reviewer told lawmakers Thursday.

Jesse Levin, a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., was hired by the Legislature to conduct a peer review of the recent cost study performed by Lori Taylor of Texas A&M University.

That study found that Kansas needs to add between $1.8 billion and $2.1 billion a year in K-12 education spending in order to boost its high school graduation rate to 95 percent and to raise significant numbers of students up to grade level or college readiness on statewide reading and math tests.

“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.”

When Taylor’s report was released March 16, it sent shockwaves through the Statehouse, especially among conservatives who quickly dismissed its findings.

On Wednesday, the night before Levin’s review was released, the House K-12 Education Budget Committee passed out a new funding plan that would phase in only about $522 million of additional money for schools over the next five years.

Lawmakers are under a deadline to pass a new funding plan before their scheduled adjournment next Friday, April 6. That’s because 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.

In October, the court found the current formula was inadequate and unconstitutional, and it said it would not allow the state to operate schools under an unconstitutional funding system beyond June 30.

Levin told reporters, after briefing lawmakers, that he thinks the court should take Taylor’s study into account when it next reviews the case.

“I think that they should consider the results of the study,” he said. “That’s all I can say at this point. It seems like a solid study to me after reviewing it.”

Levin did say there were aspects of Taylor’s report that initially troubled him. One key concern, he said, was that the recommended increase was vastly higher than that of a study done in 2006, amid another school finance lawsuit, by the Legislative Post Audit Division.

At that time, LPA found the state needed to add roughly $399 million in new spending.

Even after adjusting for inflation, Levin said, the LPA study was significantly lower than the $2 billion recommended in the Taylor report.

However, he said there were major differences between those studies. The LPA study, he said, was based on the cost of providing services that schools are legally mandated to provide, while the Taylor study looked at the cost of achieving certain educational outcomes like raising the graduation rate and improving test scores.

He also said that he believes the LPA study recommended less than it should have, but that both studies indicate the state needs to add significant amounts of new money for public education.

“My opinion is that the LPA numbers were underestimated, yet they move — I don’t want to say perfectly in parallel — but they move closely with what the newest study came out with,” he told lawmakers.

Earlier Thursday, Gov. Jeff Colyer issued a statement applauding lawmakers for making progress on school finance. And later in the day, he told reporters that he is sticking by his criteria for a new funding plan, including his insistence that it not require a tax increase.

He also said he believes lawmakers are on the right track.

“Right now, it looks pretty positive,” he said. “But we need to let the legislative process go forward. There are several parties. It’s not only just the House and the Senate. There’s also the litigation going on as well.”