Tuesday, June 21, 2005

School funding in brief

The Kansas Legislature is gearing up to fight with the State Supreme Court over school funding.

For years, conservatives in the legislature have insisted on cutting school funding (or holding funding constant which amounts to a cut in inflation adjusted dollars). They don't believe that the government's job is to educate the public, and besides, the teachers' union favors Democrats. I'll leave it to you, dear reader, to speculate on why teachers might favor Democrats over these Republicans.

The state budget is basically Medicaid, which the feds offer matching dollars for, and education. There's other stuff in there, but those are the dominant parts of the budget. Local and state property taxes get mixed with income taxes to produce the funds that care for the indigent poor, and schools which help keep someone from becoming indigent and poor.

After years of debate over how to finance schools (nicely summarized here), two school districts sued, claiming that minority and indigent students were not receiving equal protection and that the legislature had failed to meet its constitutional obligation "to make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state." The courts went back and forth, and finally the state supreme court ruled that, while the state financing plan was not discriminatory, and did not offer unequal protection, the law did not make suitable provision for the education, in particular, funding had been set at a level too low over all.

In particular, the court ruled that:

It is clear increased funding will be required; however, increased funding may not in and of itself make the financing formula constitutionally suitable. The equity with which the funds are distributed and the actual costs of education, including appropriate levels of administrative costs, are critical factors for the legislature to consider in achieving a suitable formula for financing education. By contrast, the present financing formula increases disparities in funding, not based on a cost analysis, but rather on political and other factors not relevant to education.
They postponed issuing a detailed remedy to give the legislature time to respond.

The legislature, in their wisdom, passed a bill that added $142 million to the school budget, including more money to be raised by local taxes. Rather than fight the legislature's salami strategy (add tiny amounts until it passes muster), the court stated that the state's schools were underfunded by $285 million in the budget passed for 2006. Graduates of better educational systems have already figured out that the legislature is now $143 million in the red. The Board of Education asked that the remedial bill be accepted as a stop-gap until a real solution came along, but the court held that "we cannot continue to ask current Kansas students to 'be patient.' The time for their education is now."

The court demanded that the legislature make a better budget while acknowledging some challenges:

1) The ever-present need for Kansas school children to receive a constitutionally adequate education.

(2) The role of this court as defined in the Kansas Constitution.

(3) The need for the legislature to bring its school finance legislation into constitutional compliance, with acknowledgment of the unique difficulties inherent in the legislative process.

(4) The press of time caused by the rapidly approaching school year.
The governor called the legislature into a special session, and they will have to decide what (if anything) to do.

Did I just write "if anything"? Yep. The legislature is seriously considering a showdown. They'll pass no increase, or only a trivial increase. Then the court will have to decide whether to shut down the schools, order the legislature to take another swing at it, or give in. The courts can't allocate money, but they determined that the only cost study in evidence indicates that $285 million is needed to meet the legislature's definition of a satisfactory education. The court knows how much money is necessary, the legislature is the only one who can give it, and the Republican leader of the state House wants to run for governor, so he wants a platform.

The Star has a nice review of some of the places legislators are looking for the money. The Capital-Journal explains the dynamics within the two houses.

I'll have more on this later, this is just the background.