Education officials ponder application of Rose standards in school finance case

Topeka — The Kansas Supreme Court set out a new standard recently for determining whether the state has met its obligation to provide adequate funding for public schools.

But it has left some education officials in the state curious about how the new standard will actually work in deciding how much money schools should get.

Previously, the court had said funding has to be sufficient to cover the “actual cost” of providing all the educational services required of public schools. But in its ruling March 7, the court made a dramatic change, saying funding needs to be sufficient to produce the educational outcomes that Kansas, and many other states, expect.

The new benchmarks are commonly called the “Rose standards” because they come from a landmark 1989 school finance case in Kentucky, Rose v. The Council for Better Education.

“It’s a measure that states use,” Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker said. “It’s the case that set the precedent. Whether they’re right or not, nobody else has come out with anything else to do the measuring against.”

In Rose, the Kentucky court described a broad set of skill sets and knowledge that students should have after completing school. They cover seven general areas, including communication skills; knowledge of economic, social and political systems; understanding of governmental processes; knowledge of one’s own mental and physical wellness; grounding in the arts; and sufficient preparation in academic or vocational fields to enable students to choose a career and enter either higher education or the workplace.

Those standards are reflected, almost word for word, in a Kansas law that was adopted following the last school finance case. But they are used in that context as “legislative goals” for the content of school coursework, not as a guide for determining funding.

And noticeably absent from that list is any mention of math or science, which are key components of the curriculum standards adopted by the Kansas State Board of Education.

“I think that’s a discussion that this board will have,” DeBacker said. “Are they as up to date as what we are in education across the United States, especially given the higher standards we’ve put in place?

“They (the state board) set educational standards,” she said. “These standards are set in terms of financing. Do they have language that’s a little bit outdated? Absolutely.”

In its ruling last week, the Supreme Court remanded back to a lower court the question of whether the state is currently providing adequate funding, and it directed the lower court to use the Rose standards as the guide.

That raises the question of what kind of evidence the special three-judge panel will take into account when it reconsiders the case.

“I think we have to be careful,” said Brad Neuenswander, deputy commissioner for learning services. “In all the research around college and career readiness, there’s not one test that measures everything. And at the same time, it’s probably not best that you have a standardized statewide test to measure every skill that a kid needs.”

Neuenswander said courts in the future may want to consider things like the number of high school graduates who need remedial courses when they get to college, or even Department of Labor information about how successful they are in the workplace once they leave school.

“Those are probably better measures than how kids did on a test,” he said.

Those kinds of measurements, though, present another challenge for courts, because it could take five or more years to determine whether funding was sufficient when a given student entered high school and perhaps longer to determine whether elementary schools have been adequately funded.

“It depends on how anxious you are,” Neuenswander said.

The Supreme Court did not set a deadline for the lower court’s three-judge panel to reconsider the case, and an aide to presiding judge Frank Theis said the panel has not yet come up with a schedule.