The Kansas Supreme Court has given the Legislature until July 1 to correct two problems in the state's school funding system, but school districts themselves are facing an earlier deadline, and it's one that Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll says he'd rather not even think about.
By May 16, under Kansas law, school districts have to notify any teachers whose contracts they do not intend to renew for next year. And if Kansas lawmakers don't fix the equity problems in the Local Option Budget formula, a lot of teachers could be getting those notices.
According to the Supreme Court's ruling last week, if lawmakers haven't fixed the problem by July 1, the district court "should enjoin operation of the local option budget funding mechanism ... or enter such other orders as it deems appropriate."
Translation: If lawmakers fail to fix the problem, the entire LOB funding mechanism gets shut down. Districts will no longer have them. In the Lawrence school district, that would mean a loss of nearly $24 million. Statewide, it's a little over $1 billion, according to Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis.
The constitutional problem is that lawmakers haven't been fully funding the "equalization formula" for LOBs — additional aid the state kicks in for lower-wealth districts so that rich and poor districts can levy roughly the same property tax rates to raise similar amounts for their LOBs. Because of the under-funding of that formula, poorer school districts have either had to levy higher taxes or cut their budgets. Either way, the court said, students and taxpayers in those districts are being treated unfairly.
It would cost the state an additional $104 million to fully fund that formula, but the court allowed for the possibility that lawmakers could find some other way to solve the equity problem. If the Legislature does anything less than restore full funding, the issue goes back to the district court for review to determine whether the new funding amount is still unconstitutional.
The concern for school districts is that when May 16 rolls around, they still may not know whether lawmakers have fixed the problem. And at that point, Doll and his fellow superintendents around the state may face some difficult decisions, like how many pink slips to hand out and who should get them.
So, here are the dates to keep in mind as the deadlines approach:
• Friday, April 4: The scheduled last day of the regular session. After that, lawmakers typically take a break for about three and a half weeks before returning for the "veto session." In recent years, though, most big budget issues have remained unresolved at this point in the session.
• Tuesday, April 15: The day lawmakers get the new, official revenue estimates for the upcoming fiscal year. By law, whatever budget they pass has to balance with these revenue figures. And because of tax cuts that lawmakers approved in 2012, experts have projected that next year's revenues could fall as much as 6 percent.
• Tuesday-Wednesday, April 29-30: Approximate date for the start of the wrap-up session. The exact date hasn't been set yet. Traditionally, the wrap-up is only supposed to last three or four days, but in recent years, it's dragged on for considerably longer. The main task during the wrap-up is to hammer out a final budget that balances with the new revenue estimates. This is when lawmakers will have to decide whether, or to what extent, they want to comply with the Supreme Court ruling.
• Friday, May 16: Deadline for school districts to notify teachers of nonrenewal of their contracts.
• Tuesday, July 1: Deadline set by the Supreme Court for lawmakers to cure the inequities found in the current school funding mechanism.
The Kansas Supreme Court accomplished one remarkable thing with its school finance ruling last week. It threaded the needle so carefully that nearly everyone — at least in the political arena — walked away feeling like they'd won a little something.
That's not bad, considering that before the decision nearly every news outlet, from the Winfield Courier to the New York Times, was predicting the decision could lead to a constitutional showdown with the Kansas Legislature.
Instead, Republicans walked away feeling validated that the court had paid due deference to the Legislature's role in setting budgets. And Democrats walked away armed with new ammunition to claim Republicans have underfunded schools, especially poorer schools.
Politically, it was a master stroke that avoided a potentially bitter confrontation that could have permanently damaged the court itself. But it may have come at a huge cost to schools. Because by backing away from the “actual cost” model of determining adequate funding, and instead adopting the so-called “Rose” factors, the court lowered the bar for what can be deemed a constitutional level of funding in Kansas.
The Rose factors lay out a set of educational outcomes that the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled was sufficient for that state in 1989. They specifically reference outcomes in reading and writing, social studies and government, health, the arts and vocational training. They suggest that students coming out of Kentucky public schools should have sufficient knowledge, skills and training in those areas "to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization," and to "compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states."
Here are three things to remember about the Rose standards:
First, they were established 25 years ago, before advent of the Internet, and before the subsequent shift in the United States to a knowledge-based economy.
Second is the noticeable absence of two key words from those standards: “science” and “mathematics.” They appear nowhere in the seven-point Rose test. Nor, for that matter, do the words “technology” or “computer literacy.”
And third, they mention nothing of the fact that students in the 21st century are expected to compete in a global marketplace, not just against those in "surrounding states."
So by adopting the Rose standards as the constitutional touchstone for school finance in Kansas, the Supreme Court has made Missouri and Oklahoma the standards of acceptability for educational outcomes, even though students' primary competitors today are more likely to be found in places such as China, India and the European Union.
By harkening back to Kentucky at the end of the industrial age to set 21st century educational standards for Kansas, the Court ignored one fact. We already have an institution in Kansas endowed with constitutional power to set such standards. It's called the Kansas State Board of Education, a democratically elected body that has already established curriculum and accreditation standards, including science and math, that far exceed those envisioned by the Rose court.
The question now is to what extent the Kansas Supreme Court has undercut the state board by giving the Legislature a free pass to fund Kansas schools at a lower standard.