Consultants stand by K-12 cost study but suggest phasing in the massive increase

photo by: Peter Hancock

Consultants Lori Taylor, of Texas A&M University, and Jason Willis, of the firm WestEd, present their analysis about the cost of providing adequate funding for public schools in Kansas to a joint meeting of the House and Senate K-12 budget committees.

? Two consultants who reported last week that the state of Kansas needs to spend between $1.8 billion and $2.1 billion more each year to fund its public schools stood by their findings Monday during a joint meeting of House and Senate K-12 budget committees.

But Lori Taylor and Jason Willis, the consultants hired to conduct the study, also offered some clarifying points that helped ease the minds of anxious conservatives by suggesting that the funding increase may not need to be permanent and that it could be phased in over an extended period of time.

“These are best understood as temporary transitional funding,” Taylor said of the estimates. “But first you have to catch up.”

The estimates are based on the cost of achieving the kinds of educational outcomes that the Kansas State Department of Education has said it wants to achieve and outcomes that the Kansas Supreme Court has said are necessary for the state’s funding system to be considered constitutionally adequate.

Currently, the court has noted, about 25 percent of Kansas students are performing below grade level on standardized reading and math tests, and nearly two-thirds of them are performing below the level that is considered on track for being ready for college by the time they graduate high school.

The estimate of $1.8 billion in additional funding is what Taylor and Willis said would be needed to get 90 percent of all students up to grade level, and $2.1 billion would be needed to get 60 percent of all students on track to go on to some form of postsecondary education after high school.

Once that is achieved, their report indicates, to sustain that level of achievement, the state would need to spend only about $451 million a year more than it is currently spending.

Those figures are not adjusted for inflation.

Willis, however, said the increase in funding doesn’t need to happen all at once. In fact, he said, the state would be wise to phase that in over a period of time.

“Making overly large investments of these resources all at once does not create an opportunity for leaders in your schools and districts to plan and be thoughtful about how to use those resources,” Willis told lawmakers.

“A phase-in period would allow an opportunity for school and district leaders to identify ways in which those dollars could be used more effectively,” he added.

But the consultants did not suggest how long of a phase-in period would be appropriate.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Education Finance, suggested it could be a very long phase-in.

“I see it more as a lengthy stair step,” she said after the presentation. “Not a steep stair step but more of a lengthy progression.”

Mark Tallman, who lobbies for the Kansas Association of School Boards, cautioned against too long of a phase-in period.

“I think the critical thing is, No. 1, accounting for inflation,” he said in an interview. “I think No. 2 is making sure it’s not so long that the annual increases really don’t allow you to make progress. I think the longer the phase-in of funding is going to be, the longer the phase-in of improved achievement is going to be.”

Meanwhile, Taylor and Willis also tried to pre-empt one argument that many conservative organizations frequently make about school spending, which is that Kansas schools could achieve more with less of a funding increase if they were more efficient with the money they spend.

“Clearly, I think everybody can acknowledge that these cost estimates are large,” Willis said. “We can also recognize that — and this was a surprise to Lori and I — that Kansas schools are already highly efficient in their use of spending. Kansas schools are operating at levels we have not seen anywhere else in the country.”

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Oct. 2 that current funding levels are unconstitutional, and it gave the state until April 30 to submit briefs outlining what steps are being taken to address the underfunding.

It also said that it would not allow the state to operate schools under an unconstitutional funding system beyond June 30, when the current fiscal year ends, which many have interpreted as a threat to close the school system on July 1 if lawmakers don’t comply with the court’s order.

Previous cost estimates had shown the state needed to add roughly $600 million a year in new money to meet its constitutional mandate to provide adequate funding. But conservatives in the Legislature insisted on commissioning a new study that they hoped would produce a lower figure.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, issued a statement Monday saying the numbers presented by Taylor and Willis were simply too high.

“The bottom line is that Kansans cannot afford what the court is demanding, and we cannot afford what the new study is recommending,” Wagle said.

To come up with that amount of money, she said, the state would either need to triple the current property tax earmarked for education or pass another large increase in either income or sales taxes.

But Alan Rupe, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the ongoing school finance case, said he believes the latest cost study should be a reason for the state to entertain settlement talks.

“I think they’ve come close to painting themselves into a corner,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “And what I would suggest is, they know how to get a hold of us. We would request that we sit down and try to reach a resolution to this, once this study is complete, to enter into a conversation that hopefully results in a compromise that ends this school funding situation once and for all.”