Posts tagged with School Finance
Journal-World readers may have noticed a letter to the editor today by Gov. Sam Brownback, firing back at the New York Times for an editorial they ran Oct. 13 criticizing his record on education funding.
Brownback's office sent it to Kansas newspapers because, officials said, the Times declined to publish it. The Times did not respond to our inquiries about why they turned it down. Some Kansas papers gave it a pass as well, including the Kansas City Star, where editorial page editor Mirriam Pepper told me they found some of Brownback's statements factually questionable. Plus, she said, the Star just doesn't run letters addressed to other newspapers.
Nevertheless, since it is running in this newspaper, it warrants some explanation.
The Times editorial, "Shortchanging Kansas Schoolchildren," was published the Sunday following oral arguments at the Kansas Supreme Court in the pending school finance lawsuit. In it, the Times noted that school funding in Kansas had been cut by both Democratic and Republican administrations in the wake of the Great Recession. But as the economy recovered and state revenues bounced back to near-normal levels, it was Brownback who decided to enact tax cuts instead of restoring funding to public schools. The Times said:
In signing a five-year, $3.7 billion tax cut, Gov. Sam Brownback took the position that cutting taxes did more to create jobs than meeting per-student aid formulas. That dodgy rationale was argued in the State Supreme Court last week when a group of school districts and parents sued for their fair share of aid under the State Constitution’s “suitable provision” mandate. State spending on education has fallen an estimated 16.5 percent since 2008, including $500 million in cuts under the Brownback administration, resulting in teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.
In response, Brownback makes a number of assertions that, at the very least, should be clarified.
Among those is the claim that "state spending on K- 12 education has increased by more than $200 million" since he was elected in November 2010.
According to Sara Belfry, Brownback's press secretary, that number comes from comparing total state spending in Fiscal Year 2010 — the last full fiscal year under Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson — to the total state spending approved by the Legislature this year for Fiscal Year 2015, which begins next July.
The 2010 budget included $2.96 billion in state spending for the Department of Education. The 2015 budget calls for about $3.16 billion, an increase of about $200 million.
It should be noted, however, that about $29.5 million of that increase — nearly 15 percent of the increase Brownback claims credit for — occurred in FY 2011. That's the budget the Legislature approved in the spring of 2010, more than six months before Brownback was elected.
In addition, nearly $143 million, or 71 percent of the increase Brownback claims credit for is attributable to increases in the state's contributions to KPERS, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. Although a legitimate part of the total cost of running a school system, or any other enterprise, it is not money that schools themselves have at their disposal to invest in classroom education.
A much different picture of education spending under Brownback's administration emerges simply by picking different starting and ending points.
For example, if we compare the budget that was in place when Brownback was sworn into office, Fiscal Year 2011, to the current fiscal year, total state spending has actually been cut by nearly $24 million. Or if we compare this year's budget to FY 2012, the first budget Brownback signed into law, state general fund spending on schools has decreased by nearly $100 million.
Brownback attributes that to "the result of federal stimulus funds that expired in Fiscal Year 2011."
True enough. But the assumption behind the federal stimulus package all along was that it was temporary aid to state governments that were reeling from revenue losses during the Great Recession. As the economy recovered and state revenues rebounded, Congress intended to pull back on stimulus spending, assuming that states would refill the hole with their own money.
In the case of stimulus spending for education, Brownback and the Republican-led Legislature made a conscious decision not to do that. Instead, they opted to leave the hole empty and enact tax cuts instead. It's an idea predicated on their firm belief that the tax cuts will spur economic growth, which they consider to be the state's highest priority right now.
People can agree or disagree with that economic theory. We'll all find out soon enough whether the plan works. In the meantime, Brownback's claim that his administration has increased state funding on education by $200 million is just one particular way of spinning the numbers.
Another headline for this post could have been, "Who the heck is Luke Gannon?" Because that, surprising as it was to many people in the Supreme Court chambers yesterday, turned out to be one of the more important questions.
There's a basic principle of law that says you can't just walk into court and start suing people over things you think they did wrong. You have to have "standing" to sue. You have to show that you have a direct interest in the issue involved, or that you have personally been injured by the other person's action.
For the record, Luke Gannon is the first of many named individuals who, along with four school districts, are the named plaintiffs in the case of Gannon vs. Kansas. But as Solicitor General Stephen McAllister pointed out, there is nothing in the million-plus page record of the case to show who any of those people actually are, and no evidence to suggest that they personally suffered any injury that was caused by the state's alleged underfunding of public schools.
Furthermore, McAllister argued that the school districts themselves lack standing to sue as well. The entire case, he said, rests on the plaintiffs' claim that underfunding schools has deprived children of their constitutional right to receive an education. But that right belongs to the students, McAllister said, not the school districts, and the districts do not have a right to sue on behalf of their students.
It's a longstanding principle of law that the plaintiffs have the burden to prove they have standing at every step in the case — at trial, and on appeal. Questions about standing can be raised at any point along the way, even by the court itself. And if the plaintiffs lose that argument, it's "game over."
In the decades-long history of school finance litigation in Kansas, McAllister said, this is an issue the courts have never addressed. And if the plaintiffs in this case can't prove they have standing, then there's no reason to even argue anything else.
If all you did was listen or watch the oral arguments Tuesday, you might walk away thinking the state might have landed a knockout punch. The justices seemed pretty impressed with the argument, and plaintiffs' attorney Alan Rupe didn't appear to handle the questions very well.
But in their written briefs, the plaintiffs laid out a more detailed response. First, they acknowledged that the issue has never been raised before, raising the question: Why not? Why is it that in all the cases dating back to 1972, not a single judge anywhere in Kansas has ever considered this a problem?
Second, with regard to school districts having standing, they argued that the state itself, through acts of the Legislature, has implicitly admitted that districts have standing.
Specifically, they refer to a statute the Legislature passed in reaction to the previous case, Montoy vs. Kansas. It specifically prohibits school districts from spending money out of their general fund — i.e., state money — to pay the cost of suing the state over school finance, although they may use their own Local Option Budget money to do so.
The very enactment of that statute, the plaintiffs said, proves that the state itself has admitted school districts have standing to sue. Why else would lawmakers feel a need to prevent them from using state money to do so, while allowing them to use their own local money?
That argument, however, hinges on the presumption that the Kansas Legislature always knows exactly what it's doing, and never passes a law that turns out to be unnecessary or irrelevant - an assumption that many would dismiss out of hand.
More than a few court observers have speculated that a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering the Legislature to add hundreds of millions of dollars to the school finance formula, could lead to a constitutional showdown with the Legislature that the court, this time, may not win.
If that's the case, and there's no guaranty that it is, the question of standing could give them a face-saving way out of this case, and out of the whole business of adjudicating school finance issues.
Lawyers in the pending Kansas school finance case Gannon vs. Kansas may be testing the limits of their own vocabulary — not to mention everyone else's — in making their final written arguments to the Kansas Supreme Court.
As you may recall, the case turns on whether the Legislature has violated the Kansas Constitution's requirement to make "suitable provision" for school finance. Earlier this year, a special three-judge panel ruled that current funding is unconstitutionally low and ordered the legislature to increase it. The Supreme Court, which upheld a similar ruling in 2005, will now review the question.
That case is set for oral argument next Tuesday. In the days leading up to the showdown, several amici curiae, or "friends of the court" have filed briefs, prompting reply briefs by attorneys for the actual parties.
In one response brief, attorneys for the state actually reached back into Greek mythology to illustrate their point, with a little help from the Nebraska Supreme Court, which first used the phrase.
Arguing that the court should not engage in the business of trying to run public schools or make policy decisions about how much money schools should get, the state quoted the Nebraska court, which ruled on a similar question in 2007:
"[The] landscape is littered with courts that have been bogged down in the legal quicksand of continuous litigation and challenges to their states' school funding systems. Unlike those courts, we refuse to wade into that Stygian swamp."
There is no indication in the brief to suggest who wrote it. There is little doubt, however, that whoever wrote it used that swampy quote — out of the nearly infinite number of quotes they could have used — because it perfectly sums up the utter contempt that the state's lawyers have for the plaintiffs' case.
In fact, throughout their response, the state's attorneys don't even really refer to the plaintiffs' case. They call it a "case" — in quotation marks, suggesting they really don't think it deserves to be called one.
Although less prosaic in their brief, the plaintiffs didn't show any greater level of respect in replying to the amicus brief by former Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell, the only outside party to intervene in support of the state's position.
Chappell now is the president of his own company, Educational Management Consultants. In his spare time, he's been organizing parades of people to come before the current state board and speak out against the new English and math standards known as Common Core.
Chappell argued in his brief that schools have plenty of money, and they simply need to be more efficient with it. He suggested saving half a billion dollars by consolidating school districts. He also suggested requiring teachers to work longer hours and changing the definition of "at-risk" students to decouple that designation from poverty status.
In response, the plaintiffs said Chappell had actually summed up the state's own position pretty well, and called his ideas "a self-contained demonstration of the completely reality-free school funding decision-making that would result" if this court accepts the state's arguments.
That's just a sampling of the arguments the lawyers have been making in writing. On Tuesday, they'll get to argue verbally in front of seven justices, and each other.
The court has set aside 60 minutes for oral arguments beginning at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
The Kansas Supreme Court today granted two requests by outside parties to file amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," briefs in the pending school finance suit.
Without comment, and over the objection of attorneys defending the state of Kansas, the Court gave permission to the Education Law Center, a New Jersey-based organization that advocates for students' rights and school funding.
It also granted permission to Walt Chappell, a former State Board of Education member who now runs a consulting business, Education Management Consulting.
In recent months, Chappell has been instrumental in organizing groups of people to come to state board meetings and speak out against the Common Core standards for reading and math.
Chappell was elected as a Democrat in 2008, but later switched parties and became a Republican. He was soundly defeated for reelection in the 2012 GOP primary by current board member Kathy Busch.
A side note about the school finance case that has probably gone under-reported is the fact that Justice Carol Beier has recused herself from the case.
According to Court records, Beier announced her recusal on Jan. 11, the day the notice of appeal was filed. The Court announced it publicly in March at the same time it ordered the state and plaintiffs to try to mediate the dispute - a mediation effort that was ultimately unsuccessful.
As is common with recusals, Beier did not offer a public reason for stepping aside.
That could turn out to be important later on. In the last school finance case in 2005, Beier wrote a concurring opinion, arguing that the Court should have gone further than it did. She argued the Court should have declared education to be a "fundamental right" under Kansas law, and the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In legal parlance, that normally means that courts must apply "strict scrutiny" to any governmental action that interferes with a fundamental right. The burden then shifts to the government to show that its actions are necessary to achieve a compelling state interest, and that the actions are narrowly tailored to achieve those interests.
Beier said the Court could still apply the lower "rational basis" test in school finance disputes, as long as the inequities in the system are not so "egregious that they actually or functionally deny the fundamental right to education to a segment of otherwise similarly situated students."
Two other justices - Robert Davis and Marla Luckert - joined her in that opinion. That's one vote short of a majority on the seven-justice Kansas Supreme Court, but with Beier recusing herself, and other personnel changes on the Court, it's hard to predict how that will shake out this time.
Since 2005, four of the seven seats on the bench have changed hands, including Davis'. All four were appointed by Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson.
The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday gave permission for three education groups to file amicus, or "friend of the court," briefs in the pending school finance lawsuit.
All three are expected to urge the court to uphold the ruling of a three-judge lower court panel which said that the state's current funding of public schools is unconstitutionally low, and ordering the state to increase funding by upwards of half a billion dollars a year.
That ruling in January came after a month-long trial the previous summer which focused primarily on how cuts in base state aid, local-option budget funding and capital outlay funding had affected larger urban districts including Kansas City, Kan., Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City - all districts with high poverty rates and large numbers of non-English speaking students.
The suit was brought by Kansans for Fair Funding, a coalition of school districts that includes the Emporia district.
Robert Scheib, assistant superintendent for business services at Emporia, told the Journal-World earlier that even though that district is part of the plaintiffs group, it wanted to file its own amicus brief to show specifically how cuts in LOB and capital outlay funding had affected them.
Kansas statutes provide for "equalization" aid in both of those categories so that poorer districts can raise the same amount of money as wealthier districts with roughly the same property tax levy.
But in recent years, the Kansas Legislature has not fully funded LOB equalization, and it has ceased funding capital outlay equalization altogether. That means poorer districts either have to impose higher property taxes than wealthier districts or cut their budgets.
So far, no outside groups that hope to overturn the lower court ruling, and to sustain the current level of funding, have sought to file amicus briefs. The deadline for those briefs to be submitted is Sept. 6. Oral arguments before the Court are scheduled for Oct. 8, and a ruling is expected around the first of the year.
It didn't take long after the release of state and national ACT scores for certain groups to start spinning the numbers for political gain.
Those numbers, you may recall from today's story, showed average scores in Kansas holding pretty much steady from the year before, and still well above the national average.
Of course, some might argue that, itself, was the "spin" from the Kansas State Department of Education. And their spin was quickly followed by a news release from the Lawrence school district, indicating the average scores here were well above the state average.
It didn't take long, however, for others to get in the game.
Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School boards posted today that the report was a mixed bag of results, but that overall scores in Kansas have been declining in rough correlation to the cuts in public school funding since 2009.
It's an interesting graph, but it calls to mind the old Latin phrase, *Post hoc, ergo propter hoc" — "after this, therefore because of this." Note that the Kansas line runs consistently above, yet parallel to, the national line, and both lines slope downward in about the same proportion, even though not all states have cut education funding by the same degree that Kansas has.
Meanwhile, the conservative think tank Kansas Policy Institute jumped into the game with a blog post of its own, reminding us that there's always a dark cloud behind every silver lining.
Dave Trabert, executive director of KPI, makes a few good and valid points as he cautions people about making comparisons between districts, or between states, or between district and state and national averages.
The problem, he notes, is that within any of those population groups, there are glaring disparities between scores of whites, blacks, Hispanics and others. So the racial composition of any district or state will tend to skew the results.
Based on that, he goes on to point out that when you compare racial groups across states, Kansas is really not as good as it looks at first, and that Texas, with an average ACT score of 20.9, is actually doing better than Kansas, with its average score of 21.8.
Texas, by the way, often is cited by Gov. Sam Brownback's administration as a model to emulate because it has no state income tax. It's also the state that ranks 49th in the nation for per-pupil spending on education, which reinforces one of KPI's key arguments about school spending — that more money doesn't yield better performance.
To make this point, KPI often tries to use data showing that Kansas has, in its view, outrageously high per-pupil spending on schools, but that it gets only mediocre, by the group's estimation, outcomes from it.
With regard to the ACT scores, however, KPI misses another important point. There are more variables at work than simply states and races. And that omission can lead people to believe, mistakenly, that if you simply adjust for the different racial makeup of a state or district, you can make valid comparisons.
But the ACT is not a random sample survey. The people who take the exam are not a representative sample of their ethnic subgroup in the state, or even of the college-bound members of their subgroups. ACT test-takers are an entirely self-selected group. Kids have a choice of college entrance tests they can take, and they sign up voluntarily — paying sizable sums of money — for the privilege of taking them.
In Kansas last year, where the ACT is the most popular among the two major college entrance exams, 75 percent of high school seniors took the test, even though only 65 percent of Kansas graduating seniors go on to college. Very few students here take the other major exam, the SAT.
Texas, by contrast, is a predominantly SAT state. Only about 37 percent of graduating seniors there took the ACT test last year, while about 57 percent of Texas' graduating seniors go on to college.
So you cannot say that the average ACT scores of any group of students within a state, or an individual district, reflects the quality of education being delivered to that group, or even the college-bound subset within that group. The numbers just are what they are.
So what's a parent, or taxpayer, to make of all this? I can only offer my purely non-expert advice:
Look at your kid's score, whether its ACT, SAT or anything else. Is it good enough to get into college, or qualify for a scholarship? If so, fine. If not, then turn off the TV, take away the video games, sit down with them and help them study harder. Take some practice exams. Then take the test again.
More Education News
On Wednesday, I reported about a number of school districts other than Lawrence where voters decided on bond issues this week. Late in the day, we received an even longer list from the Kansas State Department of Education.
From that list - which includes only those districts that had to seek permission from the state in order to exceed the legal debt limit of 14 percent of the district's assessed valuation - at least four more school districts successfully passed bond issues on Tuesday:
• Seaman school district (Shawnee County), $57.485 million, passed with 66 percent of the vote.
• Goodland school district (Sherman County), $14.995 million, passed with 53 percent of the vote.
• Osawatomie school district (Miami County), $3.2 million, passed with 69 percent of the vote.
• Oswego school district (Labette County), $3.25 million, passed with 65 percent of the vote.
One thing notable about the above list: Unlike Lawrence and a few other districts, they receive substantial subsidies from the state to pay off their bonds. The state calls it "equalization aid," a formula that holds down property tax mill levies for debt service payments in districts that have relatively low valuations.
In Oswego, a district with only $11 million in assessed valuation and about 500 students, the state of Kansas pays 63 percent of the bond payments.
At Seaman, a middle-class suburban district north of Topeka, the state pays about 27 percent.
The next big round of bond elections will be June 4. That will be after the legislative session ends, and voters will have a better idea of how much of the various kinds of state aid schools will be getting next year. Here's a list of the school districts, the size of the bond issue they are seeking, and the percentage of debt service payments funded with state aid:
• West Franklin school district (Franklin County), $14.32 million - 25 percent state aid.
• Central Heights (Franklin County), $1.75 million - 46 percent state aid.
• Ellis school district (Ellis County), $10 million - No state aid.
• Lyons school district (Lyons County), $13.25 million - 39 percent state aid.
• Galena school district (Cherokee County), $7.5 million - 68 percent state aid.
• Riley County school district (Riley County), $7.5 million - 68 percent state aid.
A long-awaited decision in the pending school finance lawsuit will evidently wait a little longer.
Shawnee County District Judge Franklin Theis sent a letter to attorneys in the case Thursday saying there will be no decision until around the first of the year.
Theis is the presiding judge in a three-judge panel that heard the trail of the case last summer. At the end of closing arguments Aug. 29, Theis said a ruling would probably come in "60 to 90 days." That window expired at the end of November.
Plaintiffs in the case, a coalition of school districts known as Schools for Fair Funding, allege the state is under-funding public schools by as much as $1.5 billion a year. Under the Kansas Constitution, the legislature is required to make "suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."
In an earlier lawsuit in 2005, the Kansas Supreme Court declared funding levels at that time to be unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to increase school funding by about $853 million a year, phased in over three years. That raised the basic funding formula, known as "base state aid per-pupil" to $4,400 in the 2008-09 school year.
But districts never received the full amount that year because that's when the economy began to tank and revenues flowing into state coffers plummeted.
By the 2011-12 school year, base funding had fallen to $3,780 per pupil, the lowest level since the 1990s.
For the current year, lawmakers added $58 per pupil, raising the base amount to $3,838.
During the trial, plaintiffs argued that those cuts have had a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority students, forcing districts to lay off teachers and increase class sizes, and to cut or cancel programs like all-day kindergarten and after-school tutoring. That, they argued, has translated into flat or declining test scores among those students.
Attorneys defending he state countered that the state has met its duty under the constitution because all 285 school districts are fully accredited and are providing all the classes and programs required by law. In other words, all students have an equal opportunity to receive a suitable education, even if they don't achieve equal outcomes.
The state also argued that there is no statistical correlation between increasing education spending and raising student achievement.
The trial took place over most of the month of June with dozens of witnesses providing testimony and more than a million pages of depositions, motions and pleadings entered into the record.
A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could have a profound impact on state finances and would almost certainly lead to more heated debate over the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.
Just before the trial got underway, Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature approved a multibillion-dollar package of tax cuts that many experts believe will result in large budget deficits and force further cuts in education spending in the next two or three years.
Whichever way the court rules, however, the decision will almost certainly be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, where a final ruling could take until sometime in 2014.