Kansas City, Kan., Superintendent Cynthia Lane said it’s her privilege to shake hands with every high school graduate who walks across the stage each spring.
But she knows that only 34 percent will go to college — and only about 24 percent of those who go will return for a second year. Should they stick with college, many will need remedial courses and help along the way.
“They may be able to receive a letter grade to pass a class, but they truly are not ready to get a college degree,” she told a three-judge panel Monday during the first day of a trial pitting 54 school districts against the state, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.
The districts say the Kansas Legislature has not lived up to its obligation to adequately fund schools. Attorneys for the state say that while money makes a difference, an unlimited checkbook does not always produce greater student achievement.
Lane disagreed strongly with the state’s contention that schools are funded adequately.
“We still have more than 35 percent of our children that are not able to meet the standards,” she said. “It keeps me up at night, frankly, to know that almost four out of every 10 kids are not meeting the standards that we have set as a state and a nation. It’s very troubling.”
Her testimony was the first in the trial in Shawnee County District Court.
Arthur Chalmers, a Wichita lawyer who is handling the case for the state, said student performance has increased in years when the state did not add money, even pointing to substantial improvements in Kansas City, Kan., as a success story.
“You can’t assume that just paying more money will result in an increase in achievement,” Chalmers said.
Chalmers said that during the monthlong trial he intends to prove that the Kansas Legislature has not acted arbitrarily in its spending.
“The state has not gone too far. Kids are doing well,” he said.
Attorney Alan Rupe, representing the school districts, said the Kansas Legislature is derelict in its constitutional requirement to educate students because it has cut funding resources, hurting the state’s neediest children.
“The economy cannot be an excuse for not living up to constitutional obligations,” he said.
Rupe said the state had reneged on a previous court agreement that required Kansas to spend more than $700 million on education during a three-year period. The state, citing the poor economy, funded only two years of that plan.
Schools were closed, class sizes increased, and teachers and classified staff were cut, he said.
Lane said her district has cut millions of dollars to make up for state reductions. With appropriate resources, she said, it has been able to provide in-depth tutoring and mentoring programs.
Its teaching training is so respected, neighboring districts regularly poach the district’s teachers, Lane said.
“We know what to do,” she said, but the district needs more resources.
Lane told the judges that it costs more to educate children in her district than it might in a wealthier district.
About 87 percent of Kansas City, Kan., schoolchildren are living in poverty. Many of the children enter school two or three years behind grade level, she said.
Children coming from a typical middle-class family come in knowing about 30,000 words, compared to 5,000 to 10,000 words for children living in poverty, Lane said.
“Kids can learn. This isn’t about ‘Some children can’t learn,’” she said.
She pointed to Sumner Academy as one example. The students at the elite district school come from the same demographics and yet have high achievement marks year after year. They have small classes, rigorous coursework and strong family support, she said.
Rupe said the state had a chance to make up the funding as the economy improved slightly this year, but instead it offered weighty tax cuts.
The state has allocated $3,838 in base aid for the next school year. But the actual cost, as determined by the court and several studies, should be much higher, Rupe argued.
A Kansas Legislative Post Audit study says it should be $6,142 and the state’s education department said it should be $5,723.
“The actual costs have gone up while the resources have gone down,” Rupe said.
The figures were determined from studies that show the actual cost of producing student achievement, Rupe said. The figures are aligned with state and federal government mandates and testing expectations.
Chalmers, who is expected to question Lane on Tuesday, said those studies are outdated and based on flawed data.
The studies “pretend” that the base state aid per pupil spending is the only way school districts are funded. But school finance also includes federal and local property tax dollars, he said.
That money should be considered part of the school funding equation, Chalmers said. When it is, spending in classrooms throughout Kansas is fair, he said.
Chalmers also said some school districts are leaving cash on the table. Many districts have stashed cash in reserve funds, he said, and not every school district has maximized its option to increase local property taxes.
“Cash is going unspent in making their decisions,” he said.