October 22, 2014

Fix school funding equity now, but take time to get adequacy right

Dave Trabert
Guest Columnist
The Kansas Supreme Court has determined that adequacy is met “…when the public education financing system provided by the legislature for grades K-12-through structure and implementation-is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the standards set out in Rose.”  That’s a dramatic and welcome departure from the past, when the courts used an “actual cost” method to determine adequacy.
Since no study has ever been conducted in Kansas with the Court’s new adoption of the Rose standards in mind (and/or based on efficient use of taxpayer money), the logical next step would be for the Legislature to begin a lengthy, multi-faceted analysis to examine per-pupil spending across all cost centers in comparison with achievement results of meeting and exceeding standards.  That process cannot possibly be done fairly or thoroughly in the time remaining in the current legislative session.  At the very least, it would likely take six months or more of continuous study and information gathering from school administrators, teachers, legislators, citizens, school finance experts and private sector experts on logistics and many other non-instruction functions.
One of the many great challenges in determining the minimum funding requirements to meet the Rose standards will be to explore the reasons that per-pupil spending is vastly different across the state’s 286 school districts.  Enrollment size is a factor but as shown below, there are enormous variances even among districts with similar enrollment. This table reflects the Low, Median and High spending per-pupil across all school districts in Kansas.  A separate list broken out by enrollment size is available in the Data Warehouse section of the KPI website.
The next table shows that nearly half a billion dollars in current operating costs could be saved if each of the districts spending more than the median cost per-pupil within their enrollment were spending at the median level.   Of course, this is just what could be saved or made available to classrooms if only the half of the state’s school districts spending above median could get to that level; it’s likely that significant efficiencies could also be found in many of those districts spending below median.
Potential savings is available across all district enrollment sizes, with the most potential in the districts with more students; again the Data Warehouse has a breakout for each enrollment category.
This exercise is not intended to imply that $484 million dollars can easily be saved; likely every superintendent and other interested parties would have something to say that would add a lot of context.  But that is precisely why the Legislature (and the court) should not rush into any effort to determine adequacy under the Rose standards.
The equity issues should be swiftly and cleanly resolved.  (We encourage legislators to avoid temptation to ‘tinker’ with the current formula to find the equity money, even though the Supreme Court says that that is one option available.)  But the Legislature should take its time to determining adequate funding in a thoughtful, deliberative process.
Students and citizens deserve no less.
Dave Trabert is President of the Kansas Policy Institute.

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