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Report: Improving schools may cost Kansas $2B more a year

Report: Improving schools may cost Kansas $2B more a year

March 17th, 2018 by Associated Press in National News
Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, follows a presentation on a school funding report from two outside consultants during a legislative committee meeting, Friday, March 16, 2018, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The report says improving Kansas schools could cost the state up to $2 billion more a year. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Improving Kansas' public schools could cost the state as much as $2 billion more a year, depending on its ambitions for boosting student performance, according to a new report Friday that reset the Legislature's education funding debate.

The broad conclusions about the state's overall spending on schools are in line with arguments from four school districts which sued the state over education funding in 2010. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October more than $4 billion a year the state spends on aid to its public schools isn't sufficient under the Kansas Constitution.

Some Republican lawmakers were stunned after the report was presented to a joint meeting of House and Senate committees on education funding. Republican leaders commissioned the $245,000 report, and some GOP lawmakers, particularly conservatives, hoped it would provide evidence to bolster arguments Kansas already spends enough or close to enough.

The opposite happened.

The report outlined three scenarios for improving student performance, and the least expensive would cost $451 million more a year, an increase of about 10 percent. The most ambitious option — boosting the graduation rate and vastly improving student scores on standardized tests — would result in the $2 billion increase.

"This is talking about very big numbers to get to very big increases in student achievement," Kansas Association of School Boards lobbyist Mark Tallman said. "If you want a lot better results, there's a cost."

The consultants suggested phasing in any big spending increase over five years.

"It would be a massive tax increase," Jeff Glendening, a lobbyist for the anti-tax, small-government group Americans for Prosperity, said.

The report didn't spell out what it would cost to maintain Kansas schools so students perform as well as they do now. But that's not really an option: The Supreme Court has said it wants the state to help underperforming students, and it has ruled legislators must finance a suitable education for all children.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, left the committee meeting halfway through, declining to talk to reporters outside. She said in a statement later meeting the court's directives will force either a tax increase or big spending cuts elsewhere.

"There will be major losers at the end of this," her statement said.

Some legislators immediately began scrutinizing the report.

The legislative lawyers who presented it acknowledged mistakes in one table listing funding formulas for each of the state's 286 school districts. Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Molly Baumgardner, a conservative Republican, questioned whether the consultants used the correct student enrollment figures in their calculations.

The same committees expect to hear Monday from the two consultants, Texas A&M University professor Lori Taylor and Jason Willis, director at the San Francisco-based nonprofit education research agency WestEd.

As for using the data to make decisions, Baumgardner said, "I don't think we have enough right now."

In its October decision, the Supreme Court hinted funding might have to rise by $650 million a year but also allowed for new cost studies.

Top Democrats opposed hiring the consultants to do the study, arguing it should be done by legislative auditors, who did one in 2006. They crowed after the consultants' report was released.

"It proves what we've been saying in the Legislature and in the courts, that we've underfunded schools significantly over a long period of time," House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said.

Each of the consultants' spending scenarios assumes Kansas increases its high school graduation rate from 86 percent to 95 percent within four years. The 95 percent rate would be the nation's highest, but the goal already has been set by state officials.