Central Park Elementary School (Topeka, Kansas; 4 March 1969)” by Marion Doss

March 2, 2017; New York Times

Kansas’s Supreme Court has weighed in again on the thorny question of school funding. On March 2nd, it ruled that the state was still not meeting its obligations to its public schools and their students.

In its March 2nd ruling, as reported by the New York Times, the court found that the state of Kansas was not giving enough funding to its neediest students, as its constitution requires. “Black, Hispanic and poor students were especially harmed by the lack of funding, pointing to lagging test scores and graduation rates. The justices set a June 30th deadline for lawmakers to pass a new constitutional funding formula, sending them scrambling to find more money to pay for a solution.” A little more than a year ago, NPQ covered its earlier action, which invalidated a previous school funding plan for similar reasons.

Kansas’s difficulties starkly illustrate the battleground that public education has become for the larger political struggles of our time. NPQ recently looked at this struggle from a national perspective, citing work from the Education Law Center and Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education: “The political barrier to be overcome may not be the usual battle over taxation but one over shifting resources from one part of a state to another—from richer, whiter school communities where the educational need is lower to poor districts with greater numbers of children of color.”

Kansas sees education as important; about 50 percent of the budget the Court found unconstitutional is being spent on education. It ranks 23rd in per-student spending in state-by-state comparisons. But, according to the Court, the students with the greatest need are still not getting the appropriate funds. Cynthia Lane, superintendent of public schools in Kansas City, Kansas, told the Times, “Lawmakers needed to make special provisions for disadvantaged children in the new funding plan. For a decade, we have been cutting support—we have been offering less tutoring, less support, less enrichment. So this ruling today gives me great hope that we can start talking about our aspirations, not just worrying about protecting where we are.”

One way to meet this benchmark would be to increase overall school funding, using the additional resources to increase support for those districts that need it. Doing this, however, means overcoming strong conservative political forces that see taxation as an evil to be fought tooth and nail. In February, Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed a bill he saw as a “punitive, retroactive tax increase on Kansas workers and families [that] would have cut Kansans’ pay almost immediately.” Attempts to override the veto were unsuccessful.

If no new revenues are available, then perhaps rearranging the allocation formula would meet the challenge. This, too, is not an easy sell, as it requires some districts to receive less so that others can achieve more:

In the affluent Kansas City suburbs, where test scores are high, many want to preserve special taxes that benefit their local school districts. In rural and urban parts of the state, where incomes are lower and academic performance sometimes lags, plans to provide more per-student funding for minorities and poor students have greater resonance.

Another possible solution would involve reallocating funds from other places, but that would bring other interests—health care, social services, police, fire, etc.—to the table to defend their own needs. Are legislators prepared to risk that political fallout?

A fourth answer, coming from some quarters, is in the privatization of public education. Governor Brownback seemed to suggest this in some recent comments.

The Kansas Legislature has the opportunity to engage in transformative educational reform by passing a school funding system that puts students first. Success is not measured in dollars spent, but in higher student performance. […] Parents should be given the opportunity and resources to set their child up for success through other educational choices.

Advocates of this approach, including President Trump, believe it can give all students the educations they deserve more efficiently, but as of yet, there’s little actual proof that it will deliver as promised.

The school funding ball is now back in the court of the Kansas legislature. Can it find a path through this policy thicket that will satisfy the Court’s evaluation and produce results? If so, Washington and the 49 other state capitals will want to jump on their bandwagon.—Martin Levine