Kansas Supreme Court Declares School Funding Equitable; More Money Needed for Adequate System

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Kansas found that the state’s school funding system remains unconstitutional, but gave the state a year to increase the funding. This is a relief to families, as the Court had threatened to force the legislature into a special summer session to increase school funding or shut down school altogether for the fall.  It also is a relief for those looking for justice for the state’s children because it means the Court has retained jurisdiction in the case—to ensure that the legislature will have to find enough money to provide for the needs of children in the state’s public schools.

The case of Gannon v. Kansas preceded Sam Brownback’s tax-slashing tenure as Kansas’ governor, but Brownback’s tax cuts only made matters more desperate for public school districts in Kansas, and particularly for the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.

Writing on June 26, school finance expert Derek Black explains what just happened in Kansas: “Yesterday, the Kansas Supreme Court issued its third decision in two years regarding the state’s school funding practices.  Yet again, the court found that the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty… The two big issues before the court were the equality of its financing system and the adequacy. The court found that the state had finally developed a plan that would achieve equitable access to school funding.”

The Court credits the Legislature with addressing inequity, resulting from the fact that the state has been expecting school districts to be able to raise local funding through something called a Local Option Budget (LOB).  Wealthier school districts could afford to do so; very poor districts have not been able sufficiently to supplement the state’s contribution. Black explains: “Under the prior law, not all local districts had the capacity to meet their LOB targets. The new law, according to the court, cures the problem by taking into account the percentage of at-risk students a district serves. Those with higher percentages will calculate their LOB requirement (and the funds they are entitled to from the state) differently than other districts. In short, high-need districts will receive more from the state and be expected to generate less locally.”

While The Court approved this system as the path to equity,  the issue of inadequacy of funding remains. In other words, despite that last year the Legislature raised taxes to offset the revenue catastrophe caused by Sam Brownback’s big experiment with supply-side, tax-slashing economics, the state is still suffering from inadequate revenue. Brownback had predicted that his tax cuts would grow the economy, but his hypothesis was wrong.  Now it is taking years for the state to catch up.

Reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star explain the situation for the 2018-2019 school year: “The Kansas Supreme Court ruled… that a new school funding plan is still inadequate, but gave the Legislature another year to fix it. ‘The State has not met the adequacy requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,’ the court ruling said.  But if lawmakers add money to compensate for inflation Kansas ‘can bring the K-12 public education financing system into constitutional compliance.’… The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Legislature must meet two tests to satisfy a state constitutional mandate to provide ‘suitable’ education funding: It must be adequate, meaning that there’s enough total money in the system for schools to provide a quality education. And it must be equitable, meaning that the state resources are allocated to give poor children the opportunity to obtain an education of roughly similar quality to what’s provided in wealthy districts.”

Retaining jurisdiction over the case, the Court will consider it again on April 15, 2019, “when both sides will have to file reports on whether they think the Legislature has corrected the remaining constitutional issues.”

In Kansas the Supreme Court has provided the kind of checks and balances that are missing across many of the 26 all-Red states, whose legislators and governors doggedly pursue anti-tax dogma. That is why many far right politicians in Kansas have come to believe the Supreme Court itself is the problem. The reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star quote Susan Wagle, the Senate President and a Wichita Republican: “Today the unelected bureaucrats of the Kansas Supreme Court chose to continue with the endless cycle of school litigation, leading us down the road to an unavoidable tax hike… When Kansas is on par with Nancy Pelosi’s California for sky-high property taxes and families are fleeing the state, we can thank the Kansas Supreme Court.” Senator Wagle and her colleagues are pushing for a constitutional amendment to remove court oversight and make education funding the sole responsibility of the legislature.

What the theoretical discussion of adequacy and equity of school funding misses is the impact on the daily experiences children and schoolteachers. Kansas is one of 12 states identified last November by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities where the per-pupil school funding remained lower than before the great recession in 2008.  Several of the others—Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, West Virginia, and North Carolina—are places where teachers walked out in massive protests this spring. We listened in those states to the teachers’ stories of huge classes, scarcity of counselors and support services, outdated textbooks, pared-down curriculum, and paltry, non-competitive salaries. We need to replay those stories mentally as we read about the Kansas court battle for better school funding.

On a a theoretical level, however, Kansas is a good example of the importance of checks and balances. It is a place where the judicial branch of government is putting a stop to a radical anti-tax experiment launched by the executive and legislative branches. That is how government is supposed to work.

Education Funding Equity: A Technocratic Justification vs. Jonathan Kozol’s Rationale

In a memorable keynote address fifteen years ago I heard Jonathan Kozol declare, “People say that spending money on education is just throwing money at the problem. We ought to try that. It might work.”

Certainly investing in public school equity and improvement has not been the trend in recent years.  About ten years ago, New York set up a new school funding formula to send more money to poorer school districts to remedy the lawsuit in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, but when the Great Recession hit, New York’s general assembly stopped funding the plan it had created.  At about the same time the legislature of Pennsylvania created a formula for the purpose of equalizing school funding, but in came Governor Tom Corbett who cut a billion dollars out of the state’s education budget, and the new formula died.  Kansas has radically cut taxes and slashed education funding accordingly; it is mired in a lawsuit to try to force the state to fund education.  And last Friday the state supreme court in Texas agreed to hear an appeal of what the Associated Press calls “the gargantuan school finance ruling” that found “the way the state pays for public schools is unconstitutional, saying funding levels are inadequate and are unfairly distributed around the state.”

For extremely sensible advice on public policy around budgets and expenditures, I recommend the reports from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which last October released a paper on climbing investment in prisons across the states and an accompanying drop in state allocations for public education.  “Even as states spend more on corrections, they are underinvesting in educating children and young adults, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods.  At least 30 states are providing less general funding per student this year for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation; in 14 states the reduction exceeds 10 percent.  Higher education cuts have been even deeper: the average state has cut higher education funding per student by 23 percent since the recession hit, after adjusting for inflation.  Eleven states spent more of their general funds on corrections than higher education in 2013.  And some of the states with the biggest education cuts in recent years also have among the nation’s highest incarceration rates. This is not sound policy.”

Noting that while crime has dropped overall, the share of offenders arrested who are subsequently sent to prison has dramatically risen at the same time the length of stay in prison for each offender has also risen, the report suggests, “If states were still spending the same amount on corrections as they did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more available each year for education and other productive investments.”

As for spending priorities for education, “Unfortunately, a number of states provide less funding for high-poverty schools than for low-poverty schools, while some others provide about the same funding to high-and low-poverty districts.  As of 2011, only 14 states provided at least 5 percent more funding per student for high-poverty districts than low-poverty districts. Further, many states provide inadequate funding for schools overall… None of the states with the ten highest incarceration rates ranked in the top half of states for school funding per student in 2011.”

Surely it would seem that in a compassionate and just society—a society whose citizens believe in equality, fairness, and the American Dream—these numbers would be an adequate motivator for reform.  But in case a commitment to the common good isn’t enough to motivate us these days, there is a new opinion piece by Noah Smith for Bloomberg View—a sort of plutocrats’ justification for public school spending, Throw More Money at Education.

Smith references a longitudinal economic paper, just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that justifies school funding by demonstrating a correlation with children’s future earnings.  The paper comes from economists C. Kirabo Jackson, Ricker Johnson and Claudia Persico. “The economists find that spending works.  Specifically, they find that a 10 percent increase in spending, on average, leads children to complete 0.27 more years of school, to make wages that are 7.25 percent higher, and to have a substantially reduced chance of falling into poverty.  These are long-term, durable results.  Conclusion: throwing money at the problem works.  Here’s the hitch: The authors find that the benefits of increased spending are much stronger for poor kids than for wealthier ones. So if you, like me, are in the upper portion of the U.S. income distribution, you may be reading this and thinking: ‘Why should I be paying more for some poor kid to be educated?’ After all, why should one person pay the cost while another reaps the benefits?”

To convince such a skeptic, Smith counts the ways increasing spending might be worth the investment: “When poor Americans become better workers, it doesn’t just boost their wages.  It also boosts the profitability of the companies where they work.”  “The more industries can use U.S. workers instead of Chinese workers, the more industries will base their production in the U.S.”  “If you own a business, you might need to hire some low-income people.”

Later in his piece, Smith adds some non-business benefits to his list.  “Having more educated poor people makes for a better civil society… It might also be nice not to have to live behind the isolating walls of a gated community. One way to reduce crime, of course, is to pay for more police and increase incarceration rates.  But another way is to improve education.” “At the risk of sounding grandiose, let me go even further: Education is really the difference between a cohesive society and a collection of people who happen to live next to each other.”

Ah… we learn that Noah Smith and Jonathan Kozol really agree, but Smith imagines that Kozol’s old-fashioned approach—preaching ethical public policy—is too dated for a technocratic, efficient America.

In case you are moved by the old fashioned way of presenting the case, here is what Jonathan Kozol writes: “In paying taxes for the sustenance of public schools, we’re not just buying something for ourselves. We’re buying something for the benefit of the community in which we live, and for the state and, ultimately, for the nation. In other words… with all the serious challenges they face and all of the inequities they bear… (public schools are) instruments of an intended decency—a decency that is, admittedly, not realized now in many sectors of the public system as it stands, but one that generations of Americans have ardently believed, and most believe today, to be worth striving for.” (2007, Letters to a Young Teacher, p. 147)