The Kansas school lawsuit that makes sense

Recently The Wichita Eagle editorialized on the recent school finance lawsuit in Kansas, quoting USD 259 (Wichita) school board president Sarah Skelton as pleased with the “great return” on the district’s investment in funding the suit. As much more money as the public schools will be receiving, it is not as much as was asked for, and USD 259 is preparing to ask for even more spending from a bond issue. Public comments by lead attorney Alan Rupe hint at another lawsuit, perhaps in federal court.

Lawsuits like the one in Kansas are commonplace in America. The standard remedy sought is more money. In Kansas, the legislature was sternly told to “do their job” and find more money to, as school board vice-president Lynn Rogers said, “to do what was the right thing for the kids.”

Evidently it doesn’t matter that we have been spending more and more on public schools for a long time. Public schools seem to be getting worse and worse. Here’s some evidence. From the National Academy of Sciences report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” published last year:

Fewer than one-third of US fourth grade and eighth grade students performed at or above a level called “proficient” in mathematics; “proficiency” was considered the ability to exhibit competence with challenging subject matter. Alarmingly, about one-third of the fourth graders and one-fifth of the eighth graders lacked the competence to perform basic mathematical computations.

A recent study by the American Institutes for Research contained this:

More than 75 percent of students at 2-year colleges and more than 50 percent of students at 4-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of literacy. This means that they lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, such as comparing credit card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials.

According to the report “Reading Between The Lines” issued by ACT earlier this year, only “51% of ACT-tested high school graduates met ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark for Reading, demonstrating their readiness to handle the reading requirements for typical credit-bearing first-year college coursework.”

There is little doubt that schools need a lot of improvement. The problem with the recent school lawsuit is that the remedy it asked for — more spending — is probably not going to produce the desired results, if your goal is to produce better-educated children. (If your goal is a larger education bureaucracy, more spending will produce that.)

The lawsuit I would like to see pursued in Kansas would ask for a meaningful remedy. In July, a case titled Crawford v. Davy was filed in New Jersey. This case asks for two remedies: “elimination of compulsory attendance zones that prevent children from attending better-performing public schools outside of their districts, and provision to the students’ families their children’s pro rata share of state and local educational funding so they may attend a functioning public or private school.”

In effect, Crawford v. Davy asks for school choice and vouchers as the remedy. No extra spending is asked for. No additional layers of bureaucracy. Just the power of choice.

We desperately need to rely on the power of markets and individuals, instead of bureaucrats and politicians, to improve public education in Kansas. Consider this: if it is true that Kansas schools are underfunded, they have been since 1999, the year the present suit was filed. (Presumably they were also underfunded for some years before that.) The legislature resisted the full remedy that the Kansas Supreme Court ordered, and what was passed was not funded in all years. The Wichita Eagle editorializes over and over about the legislature “not doing its job” and “playing games on schools.” It now seems possible that a child who entered public school at the time the problems with funding were noticed will have graduated from high school (maybe even college) by the time things are “fixed,” and that assumes the state will continue to apply the fix that’s been mandated, and that the fix works.

Past experience shows that spending more money on schools won’t help. We must try something else.


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