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After Gannon, will Kansas public school spending boosters still love courts and constitutions?

Will Kansas Progressives’ expressed love for courts and constitutions hold up in light of the school finance decision?

In January Paul Davis, a prominent Kansas Democrat and candidate for governor, tweeted “With the school ruling due any day now, will Brownback comply w/the court order or try & rewrite the KS constitution?” These words were followed by a link to Davis’ website that copies an article from the New York Times. (That article has its own host of problems, explained in New York Times on Kansas schools, again and More about the New York Times on Kansas school finance.)

paul-davis-tweet-comply-court-2014-01-12This mantra — that the Kansas Constitution requires the legislature to spend more on public schools — has been the drumbeat of Kansas Progressives. Their reverence for and deference to the Kansas Constitution is curious in light of their opinion of the United States Constitution.

The Kansas Supreme Court’s decision in Gannon v. Kansas contains something that Kansas Progressives support: A ruling that Kansas schools are not funded equitably. It’s thought by many that $129 million in extra spending is needed to fix the discrepancy.

But the Supreme Court stopped there, sending the issue of adequate funding back to the lower court along with a few instructions. It’s these instructions that will test Kansas Progressives’ belief in the wisdom of courts and their reverence for the Kansas Constitution.

Kansas public school spending supporters — that right there gives away their main motivation — want more school spending. Whatever distortions of facts they make, well, it’s all for the kids, don’t you know?

So right away the public school spending supporters want to deflect attention away from the performance of Kansas schools. Spending is easier to talk about, and the facts about Kansas school performance is not nearly as pretty as the education establishment wants you to believe. Two things to know: When evaluated in the light of the demographic differences between Kansas and other states, the performance advantage of Kansas largely disappears (see Kansas school test scores must be evaluated considering demographics. Further, Kansas has weak standards for its schools, and further weakened them not long ago (see Why are Kansas school standards so low?).

Kansas Judicial Center
Kansas Judicial Center
The Court had something to say about this in its opinion: “Regardless of the source or amount of funding, total spending is not the touchstone for adequacy in education required by Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution.” So perhaps we will see a court consider the results of Kansas schools rather than just the inputs.

Then, when we consider spending, the public school spending establishment performs a slight of hand, directing attention to only a portion of spending on schools: base state aid per pupil. That measure of spending has declined. But it’s a narrow measure. In the last school year base state aid per pupil was $3,838. That’s the figure often used as the level of school spending. But in that year total Kansas state spending per pupil $6,984, or 1.82 times base state aid.

Adding local and federal sources, spending was $12,781 per student, or 3.33 times base state aid.

This is important, as the Court issued some instructions in its remanding of the case to the lower court. All funding sources are to be considered: “In the panel’s assessment, funds from all available resources, including grants and federal assistance, should be considered.”

Also, the public school spending establishment has argued that spending on teacher retirement shouldn’t be included in school spending. It doesn’t make it into the classroom, they say. (One wonders if teachers would continue to work if schools did not provide a retirement program.) But the Court has a different opinion: “Moreover, state monies invested in the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS) may also be a valid consideration because a stable retirement system is a factor in attracting and retaining quality educators — a key to providing an adequate education.”

The Court gave the public school spending establishment a little hope for relief. Often that establishment says that a multitude of rules and regulations prevent funds from being spent in the way they want. The Court said these restrictions may be considered: “The panel may consider the restrictions on the use of these federal, pension, and other funds and determine that even with the influx of these additional monies the school districts are unable to use them in the manner necessary to provide adequacy under Article 6. But regardless of the source or amount of funding, total spending is not the touchstone for adequacy.”

There again the Court issued the instruction regarding spending as a measure of an adequate education.


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