School funding goes to Kansas Supreme Court. Whatever happens there, school leaders have opportunity, responsibility to ensure more students succeed

School funding goes to Kansas Supreme Court. Whatever happens there, school leaders have opportunity, responsibility to ensure more students succeed

The passage of SB 16 with a bi-partisan majority of Legislators and quick signature by Gov. Laura Kelly sends a new school finance plan to the Kansas Supreme Court. Both the plaintiff school districts and the Attorney General’s office defending the state have to file briefs by April 15 on whether the bill adequately responds to the court’s call for an inflation factor as last year’s multi-year plan is phased in over the next four years. Oral arguments are scheduled for May 9.

The Kansas State Board of Education crafted the inflation adjustment and the court has leaned heavily on the Board for expertise in the past. A rather remarkable array of political leaders, including Kelly, 43 percent of House Republicans, 70 percent of Senate Republicans, and all Democrats in the Legislature voted for the final agreement.

It’s probably the broadest Legislative majority for a school plan at least since the Montoy case was resolved in 2006.

The plaintiff attorneys say the funding level still isn’t enough to meet the Supreme Court’s guidelines. The court is expected to have a decision quickly, with really only one issue to resolve: Is the inflation factor in SB 16 adequate?

The Legislature began responding to the Kansas Supreme Court’s Gannon adequacy ruling in 2018 with a two year plan to raise funding. Last session, after the court said that fell short, it adopted a new plan with a five year phase-in. That plan was expected to raise the annual (not cumulative) level of state foundation aid by over $650 million, plus an estimated $85 million in special education aid, and increased local option budget authority of around $140 million.

With the additional $90 million annually approved in SB 16, school districts will have about $1 billion more to spend in general operating budgets and special education funding in 2023 than in 2017, a six year increase of about 25 percent. Yet after funding fell behind inflation from 2009 to 2017, the increase will only bring budgets to around 2009 levels, after adjusting for inflation. It is both a significant increase and at the same time only restoring funding to approach previous constitutional levels.

Whether the court accepts SB 16, it is clear that school districts will be under a much higher level of scrutiny for how additional funding is used, and the results it brings. Remember, the Gannon adequacy decision was based primarily on the fact that approximately one-quarter of Kansas students were not meeting even minimal academic standards in reading and math skills on both state and national assessments, and that percentage was growing. The court accepted evidence that additional funding had improved student performance, and loss of funding was hindering that performance. The State Board of Education, the plaintiffs and most educational advocates essentially took the position: we know how to improve student outcomes but it takes resources. Give us those resources and we will raise student success.

School districts have had two years of increased funding to restore position and program cuts since 2009, begin to raise salaries to be more competitive, and target new efforts to help lower achieving students, improve graduation rates and prepare more students for postsecondary and career success. The Legislature has committed to four more years of increases expected to exceed inflation.

As school boards and administrators begin work on next year’s budget with $90 million of new funding on top of $100 million already committed, there are several questions to consider.

First, how can we use these new resources to change the school system to help more students succeed, especially those who have been falling behind in basic skills, graduation and postsecondary success? Spending a $1 billion more to do the same things and get the same results isn’t politically viable or responsive to the Supreme Court.

Second, what can we do to show some results quickly? Of course many of the programs school leaders know will make a difference will take time. Investments in early childhood, for example, can’t really be measured until students begin taking assessments and ultimately graduate and move into postsecondary education. Furthermore, many important functions of K-12 education may not show up on test scores. But schools need to be able to define measures and show results within the next few years.

Third, how can we show our constituents what we are doing with new funding to make a difference for students? School leaders have to spend a lot of time preparing official documents, but those reports tell very little about how budget changes really affect students. For example, schools should consider specific strategies for communicating initiatives, costs, and returns to their public.  KASB’s compilation of district goals across the state included the following.  How will you explain how you are addressing them to your public?

These are:

Attracting and retaining staff through competitive salaries, improving professional develop and doing more to address the educator shortage through “grow your own” programs.

Addressing gaps in student achievement through early childhood programs, special education, and programs for at-risk students.

Improving student health and safety by addressing mental and physical health issues, identifying threats and improving building safety, and addressing bullying.

Redesigning schools to better prepare students for postsecondary and career success through project-based learning, internships, civic engagement, dual enrollment in both technical and academic programs, and helping students transition to postsecondary programs.

We know schools are already doing many of these things, and there are multiple ideas on how to implement others. The key is to keep building on these efforts and make sure the public knows as well. Viewing budget and program priories based on these four goals may help communicate what districts are doing with new funding and why it’s important.

It is up to school leaders to show that the Supreme Court and the Legislature were right to entrust districts with more money to get better results. If it doesn’t happen, the next discussion about funding and local control will be much more difficult.