Last fall, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in the Gannon v. Kansas school finance case that more money needs to be spent on public schools to satisfy the state constitution. They did not outline a specific dollar amount, but with a wink and a nod bracketed their analysis of how much new money would be needed as between the $600 million per year requested by the Kansas Board of Education and up to $1.4 billion, requested by the trial attorneys suing the state on behalf of Kansas public schools.
In light of that ruling, $600 million is widely recognized as the floor for new money to be spent. Kansas politicians from every ideological perspective use this number as a given. They may personally think it is too much or too little, but they understand it that if it walks likes a mandate and quacks like a mandate it is, in effect, a judicial mandate. In fact, The Star reported in October that one of the schools’ attorneys said, “It’s exactly $600 million short.”
What we know is that simply throwing more money at the problem will not change the outcomes for Kansas students either stuck in mediocrity or near-failure. Taxpayers spent $111 billion on public education over the last 25 years in Kansas, yet only 29 percent of those taking the ACT are considered college-ready in English, reading, math and science. Less than 30 percent of 10th graders are on track for college and career, according to the state assessment.
An even more sobering reality: Low-income children are typically behind their peers in learning by two to three years. Simply spending more money has not resulted in increased achievement in the past, and continuing down that primrose path will not help kids learn in the future.
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The tax implications of $600 million are staggering and could demand a potential doubling of state property taxes, increasing Kansas’ state sales tax rate to among the highest in the nation, or a 20 percent surcharge on the state income tax. Or lawmakers could possibly enact an 18 percent cut to other state spending.
Not that any of these cuts would be of concern to the attorneys suing the state. Public safety and social services may just have to move to the back of the bus, according to school attorney Alan Rupe. He actually told The Wichita Eagle that other services “may have to suffer” in order for school demands to be met without a giant tax increase.
Regardless of whether legislators choose to add a single dollar to the record-setting amount already provided, they have work to do in order to help students succeed. For starters, set reasonable building-level achievement targets and reward employees for improvement. But students in the worst-performing schools should be allowed to leave and take their state dollars to another public or private school.
The Legislature should also prevent the courts from closing schools while the adults quibble over money. It may also be time to review the Kansas Constitution, which has let taxpayers languish in education litigation since before Bill Clinton was president.
More generations of Kansas students will be left behind so long as the real crisis of educational achievement is ignored and the hard work of focusing on students is forgotten — while the judicial system interferes with teachers and students.
James Franko is vice president and policy director of Kansas Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on limited government.