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KPI admits to faulty poll question
Last week we ran a story about a poll on school finance issues conducted by the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute, including reaction from education advocates who said the questions were loaded with false or misleading information that appeared aimed at eliciting a negative response.
At the time, KPI defended the wording of the question, as did the polling firm SurveyUSA. Since then, however, another education advocacy group, the Kansas Association of School Boards, has weighed in with more information, prompting KPI to concede that one question was misleading. In a phone call with the Journal-World Friday afternoon, KPI spokesman James Franko said the group would soon post a clarification on its own blog.
The text of the question read:
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. 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.”
Many observers objected to the idea that local property tax increases would be "automatic." It was based on the assumption that if the courts order an increase in base state aid, all districts would continue levying the same percentage for their "local option budgets," or LOB's. Ten districts, including Lawrence, are allowed to levy up to 31 percent of their base state aid; the others are capped at 30 percent.
But as KASB's Mark Tallman pointed out in a recent blog, the issue gets more complicated than that, and it speaks to the very heart of a couple of key issues in the lawsuit itself.
Base state aid is currently calculated at $3,838 per pupil, far lower than the $4,492 required by law. That's because when the Great Recession hit in 2008, state revenues plummeted and the Kansas Legislature cut funding. But the cuts were complicated.
In short, while the state is funding base budgets at $3,838 per pupil, it allowed districts to continue levying LOB's as if base aid had gone up, as scheduled at the time, to $4,433 per pupil. Therefore, if the Kansas Supreme Court orders the state to increase its base aid formula to $4,492, where it's supposed to be now, local districts wouldn't get that much more taxing authority. They've already gotten the increased taxing authority that would flow from most of that increase.
Tallman estimates there would only be $14 million worth of new local taxing authority statewide - not the $154 million that KPI plugged into its polling question.
For its part, KPI says before it put the poll in the field, it confirmed its estimates with Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis. And they forwarded an email from Dennis in which he confirms that he overlooked this quirk in LOB law when he spoke with KPI.
But there are still a few points worth noting:
First, local school boards must take affirmative action every year to decide where they want to set their LOB percentage. If base state aid goes up as a result of a court decision, some districts - possibly including Lawrence, which traditionally levies the maximum amount, whatever that may be - will continue to do so.
But others are likely to come under intense pressure from local voters to use the additional money for tax relief. That's likely to be the case in poorer districts that were forced to raise the LOB's in order to make up for the state funding cuts that began in 2008-2009. So it is false to say there is anything "automatic" about any LOB increases.
Second, one aspect of the lawsuit that often goes unreported concerns "equalization aid" for poorer districts. That's another thing the Legislature has cut, and it's something the plaintiffs are suing to get back. It amounts to a subsidy for lower-wealth districts that would otherwise have to impose huge property taxes to raise the same amount of money as a wealthier district of the same size. So if the Supreme Court sides with the plaintiffs on that issue, as the trial court did, those districts could continue levying the same LOB, and they would see an automatic tax cut.
Third, even with the polling question loaded with that false and inflammatory premise, nearly half of all respondents still preferred to let the courts, as opposed to the Legislature, have the final say in determining how much money is spent. The split was 50 percent to 47 percent against giving the courts that power, well within the 4.5-percent margin of error.
And finally, many observers — including this one — think it is dangerous to assume anything about how the Kansas Supreme Court will or won't rule. During oral arguments in October, it appeared there were a number of justices looking for some graceful way to wash their hands of this case entirely.