Government & Politics

Lawmakers shocked by report that Kansas schools need up to $2 billion

The Wichita Eagle

Kansas schools may need between $1.7 billion and $2 billion in new funding to meet performance targets, according to a highly anticipated report provided to lawmakers.

Such massive increases could upend the state’s budget, potentially requiring cuts or tax increases.

The figures released Friday shocked lawmakers and others who had expected the report might provide a low figure on school spending. Instead, the study commissioned by legislative leaders says schools need much more to meet student achievement targets.

Lawmakers have just weeks to respond to a ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court that found state funding of schools is unconstitutionally inadequate.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, left during the presentation of the study. She later released a statement that did not directly respond to it, but criticized the court.

“We have worked hard to comply with the court’s demands however additional funds will not be possible without implementing another major tax increase on all Kansans and without continuing to short other state needs such as healthcare, social services, transportation, and higher education all in the favor of schools,” Wagle said.

“There will be major losers at the end of this, and that will be either the Kansas taxpayers or other state services whose funding stream will be cut.”

Wagle has previously said that lawmakers were focused on finding experts who would help show the court that funding is adequate.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said the study shows that more money for schools produces better results. The study proves that schools have been underfunded for years, he said, adding that it will be expensive to fix the problem.

Ward had questioned the work of Lori Taylor, the Texas professor who led the study. But on Friday, he said he was surprised.

"I will admit that right now. I was not expecting them to come back with a $2.076 billion price tag," he said.

The report’s recommendations focus on three scenarios, with any increase phased in over five years.

In one scenario, $400 million more for schools would be enough to maintain current student achievement targets in reading and math while improving high school graduation rates to 95 percent, according to the study.

Another scenario calls for a $1.7 billion increase to meet heightened targets. A third scenario with even higher achievement standards calls for an increase of more than $2 billion.

The performance targets aim to boost reading and math proficiency among students. All scenarios call for a 95 percent graduation rate, up from Kansas’ current rate of 85.7 percent.

Former Gov. Sam Brownback called for a 95 percent graduation rate in his State of the State speech in January.

No state in the country has a graduation rate that high, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Iowa has the highest rate, at 91.3 percent. The national average is 84.1 percent.

Gov. Jeff Colyer is studying the report, spokesman Kendall Marr said. “We look forward to working with the legislature in the coming days to develop a solution that will keep our schools open and ensure that our efforts are focused on outcomes for Kansas students,” Marr said in a statement.

The Legislature is paying more than $200,000 for the study. Some lawmakers quickly pointed out apparent errors, including in school district enrollment figures.

"I think we identified that there are several things that are missing or not correct," said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican.

The report is expected to set lawmakers scrambling to meet the Supreme Court’s April 30 deadline to respond to its ruling last fall that found funding inadequate.

Lawmakers typically take much of April off. If the Legislature wants to keep its typical break, it will need to wrap up school finance work in about three weeks.

Whatever the Legislature does, the court will then rule whether the plan is constitutional. It’s unclear what would happen if the justices reject the Legislature’s work.

Would the court give lawmakers more time? Would they order a funding amount? Or would they stop Kansas from funding schools until the Legislature approves a constitutional plan?

That last option would effectively shut down schools while lawmakers continue to work. Although classes would likely be out for summer, many districts provide summer programs and use the time to catch up on maintenance.

How to pay for a large increase is also an open question. Kansas revenues have been up amid a strong economy and after lawmakers raised income taxes last year. But a $2 billion increase, even phased in over several years, would likely outpace rising revenue.

Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican who chairs the House Tax Committee, said if lawmakers decide to look at taxes, several bills are available.

Lawmakers will spend the days ahead “figuring out how we come up with that, if it’s three years, if it’s four years, and how we do that and if there’s an appetite to increase taxes yet again this year” or put off some budget increases, Johnson said.

The report opens the endgame in a years-long lawsuit known as Gannon. Several school districts, including Wichita, sued the state for additional funding. For more than a year, the case has been in front of the Supreme Court.

This is obviously complicated, said David Smith, a spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., school district.

His district is one that sued the state in 2010 for more education funding.

The biggest challenge now, Smith said, is figuring out what the study means for school districts. Inaccuracies in the report, such as incorrect enrollment figures for school districts, complicate that task, he indicated.

"It almost says to the Legislature, if you want excellence, you're going to have to really push up the spending," Smith said of the report. "If you want mediocrity, then you can just basically continue doing what you're doing."

Alan Rupe, an attorney for the plaintiff districts, said he was reviewing the study and wasn’t ready to offer an opinion about it.

Others were less hesitant.

"It’s clear we’re going to have to come up with a large sum of money" to comply with the court, said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

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