Gannon decision gives Kansas schools opportunity to deliver

Gannon decision gives Kansas schools opportunity to deliver

After the Kansas Supreme Court on June 14 approved the 2019 Legislature’s final step to resolve the Gannon school finance case, it’s time to focus on what comes next for Kansas public education. (Link to court order.)

For one thing, the case hasn’t been dismissed: the court retained jurisdiction to “ensure continued implementation of the scheduled funding” over the next four years. More fundamentally, attention will turn to the impact of the new funding on education outcomes.

Constitutional Standards. Educational outcomes were the basis of the Gannon decision. The Kansas Constitution directs the State Legislature to provide “intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement” by establishing a system of public schools under the general supervision of the elected State Board of Education and “maintained, developed and operated” by locally elected schools boards. The Legislature is further directed to “make suitable provision for the finance of the educational interests of the state.” (Kansas Constitution, Article 6)

In a series of Kansas Supreme Court decisions, “suitable” funding has been defined as meeting two standards. “Equity” means that each local school district can provide similar amounts of resources without disparities in required taxes due to differences in local wealth. “Adequacy” means that the funding in the system allows students to meet certain educational outcomes.

Montoy Case and Results. In the Montoy lawsuit in the 2000s, a District Court found – and the Supreme Court upheld – that parts of the finance system were inequitable, and that overall funding was inadequate for two reasons. First, there were deep disparities in student performance among different groups, with low income, minority, disabled, migrant and English Language Learner students lagging far behind their peers not in those groups. Second, the weight of evidence indicated that funding matters in student achievement, based on the state’s own cost studies, expert opinion at trial and actual experience in Kansas schools.

Although school funding in Kansas – and all states – has generally increased more than inflation most years for decades, the Legislature responded to the Montoy decision with a much higher rate of increase over a four-year phase-in period to reach funding levels based on a Legislative Post Audit cost study. During that phase-in and for several years after, most educational indicators – state and national test scores, graduation rates, college readiness tests and adult education levels – did, in fact, increase. (Changes in school funding and outcomes)

Decade of Decline. However, with state revenues falling after the Great Recession of 2008, the Legislature began cutting base state aid per pupil and failed to fund equalization programs, which began widening tax differences. Revenues were further limited by income tax cuts that reduced tax collections far more than anticipated, and by slow economic growth that put Kansas near the bottom of the nation despite the tax cuts.

As a result, Kansas total K-12 funding fell hundreds of millions of dollars below the inflation-adjusted 2009 level, which was the “adequate” level established in Montoy, even as the percentage of low income, non-white, disabled and ELL students rose. About 2,000 school district jobs were cut, as enrollment rose. Kansas per pupil funding dropped compared with the U.S. average, neighboring states, higher-achieving states and peer states, as did teacher salaries. Most significantly, state and national test scores began to decline. The courts found that approximately one in four Kansas students were not testing on grade level and more than half were not reaching a higher “college ready” standard.

The goal of funding finally approved by the Supreme Court is to simply restore school operating budgets to approximately 2009 levels after adjusting for inflation. Based on current economic estimates, total school funding will still be a lower share of total Kansas personal income (annual income of all residents of the state from all sources) than most of the previous 30 years and remain below the U.S. per pupil average.

The questions for school leaders are these: how will new resources be used to replicate the growth in student outcomes in the Montoy years – and meet the higher standards in the Kansas State Board of Education’s Kansans Can vision? What other changes in how schools operate will be needed? How will student outcomes be measured? What will be the benefit to Kansas as a whole?

Strong Starting Point. It is important to stress that Kansas will start from a strong foundation. First, Kansas educational attainment (completing high school, college and advanced degrees) is at an all-time high, and Kansas ranks comparatively high in educational attainment. Using a weighted average of 15 indicators, including national test scores, graduation rates and young adult high school and college completion, Kansas ranked 9th in the nation based on the most recent data. Kansas ranks in the top half of the states on all 15 measures and has done better than the average of neighboring states and similar “peer” states on almost every measure.

Second, Kansas schools are highly efficient, as noted by outside experts commissioned by the Legislature in 2018. Kansas spends less per pupil than the U.S. average and less than the average of all peer states – while having better outcomes. Kansas spends a higher percentage of total revenue and operating funds on direct instruction than the U.S. average and peer states, and has a low pupil to teacher ratio and a high pupil to administrator ratio.

New resources. To invest additional funding, both school leaders and legislators have identified five areas they believe funding will make a critical difference.

Quality Educators. Since 2009, Kansas teacher salaries have fallen behind inflation, salaries in other professions requiring college degrees, and other states. New funding will allow districts to make salaries more competitive, as well as support professional development, increase time on the job and create incentives to enter teaching.

Equity in Student Achievement. Differences among student groups was a key part of the Gannon case. Districts can address this through early childhood programs to help students start school on a more equal basis; improve special education services in areas like dyslexia; and target additional help for “at risk” students with special learning challenges.

Student Safety and Health. The Legislature has provided additional funding to make schools physically safer and for expanding mental health services. Innovative new programs and more social workers and support staff can address student trauma, bullying and health issues that interfere with learning.

Preparation for Postsecondary Education and Careers. The Kansas economy will need more employees with technical credentials and college degrees. Schools can respond with better individual plans of study, increased guidance counseling and support for first generation college students, and expanding concurrent college enrollment and technical education pathways.

Effective and Efficient Schools Responsive to Local Communities. School leaders will need to continue to seek ways to maximize resources and collaborate with other districts, local governments, agencies and private partnerships, while meeting the unique needs of each community.

Redesigned Schools. While new resources are important, they are unlikely to help all students succeed unless schools also change how they operate for students who are not succeeding. Under the State Board of Education’s school redesign “Moonshot” program and new accreditation system, school leaders should focus on four principles: student success skills linked to social and emotional learning as well as academics; family, business and community partnerships; personalized learning; and real-world applications.

Measuring Student Success. Schools will be evaluated by multiple measures. Some are required by state and federal laws, such as state assessments and the National Assessment of Education Progress. Some are part of the State Board’s Kansans Can vision: kindergarten readiness, individual plans of study, high school graduation and postsecondary success. Some will be measured locally, like social and emotional health and citizenship.

Stronger Kansas. The ultimate measures of success will be whether young people leaving the school system have the skills to be happy, healthy, economically successful and engaged in their community. States with higher educational attainment have higher average incomes and less poverty. Individuals with higher education earn more, are more likely to be employed, and less likely to require public assistance or incarceration – and the same is true for their children.

With the Kansas Supreme Court, Legislature, governor and State Board of Education on board for the first time in 10 years on school funding, school leaders deserve congratulations for staying focused on students during a difficult decade. It is now up to local school leaders, educators, students and communities to put those resources to work to improve student success. Given past performance, we know Kansas school boards and school staff will deliver.