Corkins testifies on school finance history, recommendations

Topeka, Kansas — In testimony Monday before an interim session of the Kansas House Appropriations Committee, former Kansas Education Commissioner Bob Corkins supplied insight into Kansas school funding court decisions, and made some recommendations for the future.

In its ruling in the Montoy case (the 2005 case that ordered the Kansas Legislature to increase school spending), the Kansas Supreme Court said very little about efficient spending, according to Corkins. The original trial judge addressed this issue in a preliminary order, saying that if schools funds are “squandered,” resulting in Kansas schoolchildren not receiving the suitable education the Kansas Constitution guarantees, the legislature needs to correct the situation.

The courts relied on the Augenblick & Myers study in determining what a suitable education in Kansas should cost. This study relied on two methods, according to Corkins: the “professional judgment” approach and the “successful schools” approach. Another method, school district spending efficiency, was not used, with the report stating “Since the majority of successful districts [in Kansas] would be considered inefficient spenders, we did not use this examination of efficiency.” (emphasis added)

In 2006 the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit produced a cost analysis, aided by outside consultants who wrote that “directly measuring efficiency is very difficult.” It did use research that found that factors positively related to efficiency in spending are district wealth as measured by property valuations, and the share of district residents who are over the age of 64. This logic, Corkins said, is difficult to accept.

Corkins had several recommendations for the legislature, including these:

Site-based budgeting: In this model, budgets are developed for each school building, and the principal has “greater autonomy and accountability for deciding how public dollars are spent on each student in that principal’s facility.” Kansas does not do this at the present.

Site-based reporting: “What is the total spending per pupil at each schoolhouse in Kansas? Nobody is accurately disclosing that information presently.” Corkins said this information is needed to guide school spending policy and to defend its constitutionality. Also, this information can identify inefficient spending.

The Kansas school funding formula includes weighting factors such as a student coming from a low-income family or needing bilingual education. These factors give the appearance of “direct personalized funding,” Corkins said, but there’s no guarantee that the students who generated the weightings that resulted in extra funding for their school district will actually receive and benefit from those increased funds.

As Corkins said: “Put simply, there is no assurance that dollars will follow the student.” Lacking that, the weighting factors have no rational basis, and it may be that our school funding formula is unconstitutional. Local school districts may also be at risk for lawsuits.

The Kansas Department of Education does have initiatives in place to help with this type of reporting, particularly Kansas Individual Data on Students (KIDS) and an enterprise data warehouse, although Corkins wasn’t able to verify the status of the latter.

Corkins said that school district officials have been opposed to legislative efforts towards site-based budgeting. For now, he recommended that the legislature concentrate on site-based accounting and reporting.

Analysis

The recommendation to move to site-based reporting could produce some important results. According to Corkins and also a Kansas school board member I talked to, there are significant differences in per-pupil spending in the Wichita school district, with failing schools receiving much less funding that others. The type of reporting that Corkins recommended will let us spot these differences.


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