In Kansas, as in many states, properly funding public education remains a difficult problem. Few governors or legislators would argue with Michelle Obama when she passionately told a group of students, “You have to stay in school. You have to. You have to go to college. You have to get your degree. Because that’s the one thing people can’t take away from you is your education. And it is worth the investment.” Yet eight years after Kansas’s courts were asked to step in, the state is still falling short and arguing about what “adequate” means.
Last week, the Kansas State Supreme Court again ruled that the state’s Republican-controlled legislature has not invested enough in public education. This ruling followed upon several previous rulings that had forced the legislature, under threat of school closures, to scrap a new funding formula, leading to an increase in education funding in the state’s budget for the coming year. For the court, even the allocation of more than half a billion dollars more over the coming five school years did not bring the funding close to the level of adequacy required by the Kansas constitution.
The Court has used two yardsticks to measure the investment required to fulfill the state’s constitutional mandate to provide satisfactory education to all. As described by the Kansas City Star, funding “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 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.” These two benchmarks can be a useful vantage point to view school funding debates wherever they emerge, since policymakers in every jurisdiction face similar challenges. In 2016, in response to an earlier court decision, Kansas City’s school superintendent Cynthia Lane described what was at stake in this struggle: “The opportunity for a quality education must be available to all Kansas children…not only for students in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, but also for students and communities across the state.”
The challenge of raising more funds comes up against the needs of school districts to respond to greater numbers of low-income children and non-English speakers, a political battle that’s always difficult. Asking some to pay more so other people’s schools can work more effectively is not an easy task in the heated climate of today’s politics. As one Kansas legislator noted, “There were several opportunities to do right by our schools, and we just never had enough votes for them.”
In raising taxes to provide the additional state funding, legislators weighed the importance of education against the difficulty of raising taxes. The balancing point they reached fell well below the funding level their own research showed was necessary. Education Week noted, “According to the legislature’s own study, it would cost between $1.7 billion and $2 billion over the next five years in order to provide an adequate education.”
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In its ruling, the Court allowed schools to open this coming fall: “The amount of money added for the approaching school year should permit such an extension through the 2019 regular legislative session. We have confidence the legislature can again meet its constitutional duty….To come into long-term compliance, the Legislature will mainly have to adjust its existing funding plan for inflation.” (In 2017, it threatened to close the schools until it figured out a way to share the money equitably across the system.)
EdWeek reports that Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle strongly sees the Court, and not funding, as the problem. “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.”
Opponents of increasing school funding are now considering changing their state’s constitution to remove the Court oversight of their funding decisions. Rep. John Whitmer (R-Wichita) sees the problem as inefficiency rather than inadequate funding. “There is no more money, and the schools shouldn’t get more money until they show they are using it effectively and efficiently. I think we have until June 30th of next year to pass a constitutional amendment once the people of Kansas finally put an end to this nightmare.”
Kansas’ struggle is not unique. According to the Education Trust’s 2018 look at Funding Gaps, “Whether you look at the national numbers or the state-by-state numbers, the pattern is disturbing: in more than half of states, districts with the highest poverty rates do not receive more funding to account for that increased need. And in 14 states, the districts with the most students of color get at least five percent less funding than districts with the lowest percentage of students of color. These funding inequities are not new—they have been documented and debated for decades.”
Removing the Court’s ability to advance equity may ease the political burden for policymakers, but it will not bring us any closer to making our educational investments fair.—Marty Levine