Experts hired for school finance study and review; why it matters

Legislative leaders on Friday voted to hire a professor from Texas A&M University to conduct a new study of the cost of providing constitutionally adequate school funding in Kansas. Also approved was hiring a second expert from the American Institute for Research to peer review that study and previous studies at the heart of the Gannon school finance case. 

Dr. Lori L. Taylor will conduct the main study, which is to be completed by March 15. Dr. Jesse Levin will then “peer review” that work, as well as reviewing the 2002 Augenblick and Myers Kansas cost study, which was a key factor in the Kansas Supreme Court’s Montoy decision in 2005; and the 2006 Kansas Legislative Post Audit cost study, which the basis of the final Legislative action the court accepted to “settle” the Montoy case in 2006. 

That schedule creates a tight timeline for the 2018 Legislature because briefs from both parties on the Legislature’s response to last October’s Gannon V decision are due April 30. That leaves just six weeks for the Legislature to receive and respond to the study and have the state Attorney General’s office prepare its defense of the case. Oral arguments are set for May 22. 

The Legislature is currently scheduled to adjourn the regular session on April 6 and return for the “veto session” on April 26. Those plans are subject to change. Also, in mid-April the Legislature should get updated Consensus Revenue Estimates, which will provide a new forecast of how much tax revenue the state will receive in 2018 and 2019. That estimate will indicate how much the state can add to K-12 education without needing to either raise taxes or make cuts in other state programs. 

April has also been suggested as a possible date for a public vote on amending language in the Kansas constitutional concerning educational funding. Some Legislators have called for giving the public a vote before complying with Court’s latest Gannon ruling. Any amendment would take a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate, which in considered unlikely given the current make-up of the Legislature. 

The vote to hire Taylor and Levin was approved by the Legislative Coordinating Council on a 5-2 party-line vote, with minority leaders Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita and Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka questioning whether the two experts would conduct unbiased research or had been selected with a pre-determined goal of finding a lower cost than previous studies. 

Other members of the LCC who approved the hiring are Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita; Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park; House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe; House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton and House Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, R-Olathe. 

The major work of identifying the two experts was done by former Senate Vice President Jeff King, who has hired last month as legal counsel for the Senate in the Gannon case. King also worked for the full Legislature last session.  

The school funding study is expected to cost $245,000 and peer review, $40,000, according to reports. King’s work as legal counsel to the Senate will cost $100,000. The House has already set aside $100,000 for an attorney to represent it in the case, but that position has not yet been filled. 

King told the LCC that both Taylor and Levin were respected national experts on school funding, resources and educational policy and there were no preconceived expectations for conclusions. He noted that the Kansas State Department of Education has worked with AIR, where Levin is a principle researcher, and that Taylor has Kansas connections including a degree from the University of Kansas, and is familiar with the issues in the Kansas case. 

The issue of “expert” research and input has become critical in the Gannon adequacy case because the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled the Legislature has the burden to prove it has provided enough resources to schools in order for students to meet or exceed the “Rose” capacities, which concern essential skills. 

Last Spring, the Court upheld a lower court finding that Kansas school funding is inadequate because approximately 25 percent of students are scoring below grade level on state reading and math tests; the number of students falling below standards is increasing; there are significant differences in educational performance among various student groups; and these issues are present in other indicators such as national tests, graduation rates, and college preparation. 

Moreover, the court found credible evidence that performance is linked to funding in previous cost studies, expert testimony at the trial court level and testimony from Kansas school leaders. 

The 2017 Legislature responded by passing SB 19, which boosted K-12 funding by approximately $300 million over two years (2017-18 and 2018-19), with a large portion of new funding targeted at lower performing student groups. 

In October, the Supreme Court ruled SB 19 did not satisfy its concerns with adequate school funding. Although the court did not set a specific amount of funding it would require, it said the state did not show enough evidence that that $300 million would be enough to correct the student performance deficiencies it identified. Specifically, the court found the method used by the Legislature to justify its per pupil base amount did not meet rigorous expert standards and methods used by previous studies; and was far short of the amount calculated based on those studies and the recommendations of the State Board of Education. 

The court seems to be implying that the Legislature could satisfy its ruling by coming much closer to those amounts, which would require an estimated $600 million in additional funding. The plaintiffs in the case have indicated a willingness to accept that amount. 

The purpose of the new study by Taylor seems to be to either confirm those previous studies – now 10 to 15 years old – or develop a new recommendation that the court would consider at least equally credible. Levin would provide a second “peer review” of both the new studies and previous studies it will be compared to. 

If the new research indicates constitutional funding can be provided at a lower cost, it will give the state a better argument that the court should accept the level of funding already provided or at least a substantially smaller increase than sought by the plaintiff school districts. 

If the new research confirms the previous studies – or indicates a higher amount – the Legislature will still face extremely difficult choices in providing additional funding, but it may be easier to justify those choices. 

Link to background on Dr. Taylor from Texas A&M. 

Link to background on Dr. Levin from AIR. 

Link to KASB statements on Gannon, other Gannon materials and other KASB resources. 

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