In considering some of the responses to the Kansas Supreme Court's most recent Gannon school finance case, let’s start with what the court did NOT do.
The court did NOT require the Legislature to increase funding based on its own new education cost study. It did NOT require the Legislature to follow the recommendations of the Kansas State Board of Education. It did NOT impose new, higher academic performance targets.
Instead, it ACCEPTED the Legislature’s method of calculating constitutionally suitable funding for K-12 education, which found funding remains $522 million short. It ACCEPTED all legislative changes to local option budgets for school districts. It ACCEPTED the Legislature’s six-year phase-in to bring funding up to its own calculation for a suitable level.
Essentially, the court had just one problem, which would be recognized by anyone in their personal financial life: any amount of money today will be worth less in six years without adjusting for inflation.
The court only asked the Legislature to continue what it used to calculate the $522 million in the first place: an annual inflationary adjustment.
Let one fact sink in: by the Legislature's own calculation, Kansas school operating funds had fallen more than three-quarters of a billion dollars behind inflation by 2017, without considering any higher standards or performance targets, or any other cost studies. The consequences of this fact are clear.
Kansas school districts had cut more than 2,000 positions since 2009, and teacher salaries had fallen $4,500 behind inflation. Kansas had fallen from 24th to 31st in total per pupil funding, and 37 states increased funding by a higher percentage since 2008. Kansas teacher salaries had fallen from 38th to 41st, and now trail Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.
Most critically, other states were improving faster than Kansas in graduation rates, college participation and test scores; giving their students an advantage in preparation for postsecondary education and employment.
In 2017, the Legislature added over $200 million in school aid for the 2017-18 school year. That allowed school districts to begin to recover, adding back nearly 1,000 employees, giving the largest teacher salary increase since 2009, adding new programs aimed at student success and launching a school redesign project. But based on the Legislature’s own calculation of suitable funding and inflation, funding remained over $500 million short. The 2018 Legislature approved a plan to close that gap in five years but did not provide an adjustment for inflation.
The additional funding approved by the 2018 Legislature will allow school districts to “make up” ground lost to past inflation and “catch up” with other states that compete with Kansas schools for teachers and Kansas students for jobs. The court has asked the Legislature to provide an adjustment to “keep up” with future inflation.
Some legislators have said Kansas cannot afford this final step. This should raise an even more important question: why not? How are other states able to provide higher funding per pupil, larger increases in funding, higher teacher salaries, and in some cases, better student results?
Just among the other Plains states, Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota have higher total per pupil funding, higher teacher salaries and rank above Kansas on multiple student outcomes. Missouri increased funding faster, now spends almost as much per pupil, and moved ahead of Kansas in teacher salaries. All of these states - and many others - also seem able to provide postsecondary education, transportation and social services as well.
Some voices continue to call for a constitutional amendment to limit the court’s role and give more power to the Legislature in determining school funding. In the latest decision, the court was quite deferential to the Legislature, but made clear the Legislature must have some rational basis for determining “suitable” finance in providing for “intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement through a system of public schools,” as required by the people of Kansas in their constitution.
The choice for Kansas is clear: comply with the court or allow our public education system to continue to slip behind.