Wrap Up Newsletter Part 3: School Finance
In my series of newsletters regarding the veto session, the first discussed the massive, retroactive tax increase adopted by the Legislature.  The second addressed the dramatic increase in spending in the budget which recently passed.
As promised, now it is time to discuss the item that hovers around 50% percent of the state general fund budget -- education finance. SB 19 is the plan that passed both the House and Senate and was eventually signed by Governor Brownback. 
What Did The Court Actually Say?

As you will recall, the Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling requiring the Kansas Legislature to adopt a new funding formula before July 1 of this year. 

It is important to understand that while it's proper to review what the Court actually said in their ruling, it acted outside of its bounds by overriding the will of the people.  When we cede the will of the people and its elected bodies to the judiciary, we risk our fundamental liberties being usurped by judicial fiat.  So, I stand against the Kansas Supreme Court being involved to the degree that it has been, but also want to provide analysis about what the ruling said and what it didn't say.

Predictably, those on the left interpreted the ruling on adequacy as a demand to dramatically increase the amount of funding for schools.  SB 19 is a nearly $500 million increase over the next two years - with further increases tied to the rate of inflation.   This means that spending for education will now go up every year without regard to performance results or to any possible extenuating circumstances.  Even when the private sector is not able to receive increases in income and keep up with inflation, the public education sector will continue to receive tax dollars from those same citizens. 
The truth is that the ruling didn't demand new funding. Here are some important takeaways from the court decision:
  • The Court issued a new requirement to the Legislature that "adequacy" means funds must be allocated in a manner that is "reasonably calculated" to have all students meet or exceed statutory standards. (No such requirement was given to the Department of Education or school districts, which are the organizations that have a primary duty to ensure funds are being used in such a manner.)
  • A positive aspect of the ruling was that the court changed the focus of what schools "want" for funding to what schools "need" to achieve outcomes for students who are not reaching grade level requirements.
  • The court focused on the one-quarter to one-third of students who need more attention because of low assessments.
  • A problem with the ruling was the court did not question prioritization of how programs were cut in schools that claimed to be underfunded, and no evidence was required that local school boards were making appropriate decisions with the funding they had already received, especially the "at-risk" funding which should have been used for helping those students not meeting grade level requirements.
  • The court acknowledged that the State presented evidence and arguments about Emerson Elementary, which had students who were struggling to reach their appropriate assessment level, but the court ignored significantly important criteria that came from the District Superintendent's sworn testimony given at trial:
"Well, the first thing we did was sit down and have a conversation with every employee that was assigned to the building. And part of the conversation was to really determine whether or not they believe that children, regardless of their background and their poverty situation, could learn at high levels of expectation. And to be honest with you, about 50 per cent of them did not believe that the children that were attending that school could truly perform and meet the high expectations met by our state and by the district. So we replaced the principal and we replaced 50 percent of the staff - it's a small building so 8 to 12 teachers, a principal and a secretary - and began providing that group of individuals intensive professional development, particularly in the areas of literacy."
  • Even though the court missed some crucial information given in the above testimony, it is important to note the court did acknowledge two-thirds to three-fourths of Kansas students were meeting grade level standards and an adequate education was being delivered.
  • While the court discussed state assessment comparisons from previous years in its decision, they cannot and should not be considered as conclusive because the assessment criteria has changed radically over the past several years because of Common Core. It's comparing apples to oranges. 
o    Even KSDE Dr. Scott Smith said the new assessment measures were "more rigorous standards," and "we couldn't measure the (new) College and Career Ready Standards with the old test."
o    Terry McEwen, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Lawrence school district said, "Because the assessment is different, results cannot be compared with past years, and instead the results from the 2014-15 tests establish a baseline of performance."

Helping At-Risk Students: A Student-Focused Solution

Instead of the significant increase in spending for education that was passed, there were several ways to target the underperforming population and improve education overall that did not get passed, including:

  • Proper motivation must be provided to help schools understand and deal with their internal deficiencies to get students on the right track of meeting their grade level requirements.  The Emerson school situation shows us that just sending funds to the schools is no assurance the funds will be used properly or used in a way that is "reasonably calculated" to have students meet grade level requirements. Certainly, every member of the staff should believe their students have the ability to succeed. 
  • Accountability measures should be put in place to show if at-risk funding is being used appropriately.  Currently, districts receive a significant amount of at-risk money that can be spent however they choose.  Instead, the districts should have to make application to the Legislature to compete for a grant that would achieve a particular goal targeted to helping children with their assessments, and by using programs that have had evidence-based success.
  • The adoption of more robust school choice initiatives should available, so all students have an equal opportunity to succeed and are not stuck in a school that isn't meeting their needs.
  • A re-allocation of dollars from administration personnel to students is needed, to put money back in the classroom where it belongs.
  • Realignment of school district administration would ensure smaller school districts share administrative resources, especially areas in Kansas where districts may have less than 100 students per district.
  • Reviews of spending throughout our entire education system from the ground up would show how much money is being spent on capital costs, such as sports facilities, expensive new administration buildings, and luxurious new schools where such funding could instead be spent on classroom education.  These decisions are made by local school boards, and they are driving costs upwards with little to no accountability.
Yet, rather than exploring such real and common sense reforms, SB 19 actually turned back the clock and reverted to a formula strikingly similar to the old and complicated 1992 formula.  A formula which the Legislature repealed two years ago, and which took local dollars from Johnson County schools. 
One positive policy change in the bill was the expansion of school choice, so not only corporations, but also individuals, can receive tax credits when they contribute to a non-profit organization for low income student scholarships, or TCLISS.

Here are the fiscal details of SB 19 :

1. The bill allocates $186.6 million in new education spending in FY 2018.  

2.  In 
FY 2019, the bill adds $186.6 million and also adds $97.2 million for total new spending of $283.8 million.   

3. In FY 2020 and beyond, that amount will see an automatic increase due to inflation. 

When combining FY's 2018 and 19, that's $470.4 million more in education spending the taxpayers weren't saddled with before the passage of this bill.  Put another way, by FY 2019, the state will be spending $283.8 more per year on education than before, and it will continue to go up every year after that.

At the end of the day, SB 19 passed the Senate by a vote of 23-17.  I voted No.

At Least That's The End of It - Right?

One would think that a dramatic increase in spending of nearly $470.4 million over two years PLUS built-in automatic increases every year after that would result in the education lobbyists being satisfied.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.
The school districts behind the lawsuit have now argued that despite this new increase, they want a staggering $1.5 billion more in new spending on top of what just passed.  This would require another huge tax increase and it should send a wake-up call to every taxpayer in Kansas -- there is literally no amount that will ever be enough for the education lobby.  Of course, we want all children to have the best education possible, and for teachers to be compensated appropriately. This is why we have to look at the system as a whole.
The school funding system we enact should be based on the student, not the system itself.  Only a student-focused system will result in what's best for the child, rather than what's best for the system that wants to grow exponentially and reward itself.
Any real reform of our education system cannot just involve small pilot programs like the TCLISS program previously referenced.  Though a wonderful program, it only involves a handful of children, and programs like it must be expanded so it is available to a much wider range of children.  Whether we look to expanding tax credits, enacting scholarships, or other reforms, school choice is the best way to ensure those 25% of kids who are failing get a chance to succeed, and to ensure those kids that are succeeding continue to do so. 
We must also look at administration costs, and that starts with salaries.  Just here locally in the Shawnee Mission School District, administrator salaries have exploded .  Similar figures exist around the state, particularly here in Johnson County.  A simple payroll records search at kansasopengov.org, which examines some of the largest school districts in the state, reveals dozens upon dozens of salaries in the six-figure range, including over $320,000 in 2016 for the superintendent of Olathe schools. In 2015, the Blue Valley Superintendent received $634,454 and a Shawnee Mission School Assistant Superintendent received $422,198.
While these decisions on pay are made by local school boards, they impact the overall monies available to teach students and that figures greatly into the amount of funding available from the state.  While administrators get rich off the taxpayers, a full quarter of our students are not performing adequately according to the Kansas Supreme Court.  What this indicates is not a need to throw yet even more money at the problem, but take a serious look at how that money is being allocated, and that starts and ends with local school board members.
We should also look at capital costs, and that includes sports and administrative facilities.  Here in Shawnee Mission, a closed middle school was demolished to build a $35 million administrative building .  Olathe West High School cost a whopping $82 million to build .  Again, while these decisions were made by local school boards, the sheer amount of money being spent on facilities instead of classroom education begins to call into question the copious amounts of additional funding they are requesting from the taxpayer each and every year.

Kansas Policy Institute published information from the Kansas Department of Education  for the 2015-16 school year.  Since 2005:
  • $5.2 billion in new debt was issued by 149 districts.
  • Debt Service payments totaled $4.9 billion.
  • Bonded indebtedness increased $2.4 billion or 77%.
  • Debt Service payments jumped 98%, from $286 million in 2005 to $567 million in 2016.
  • $530 million more would have been available for Instruction (2006 - 2016) if Bond Aid held steady since 2005
  • $129 million more would have been available for Instruction this year
Where and when will we draw the line? 
Hopes for more parental choice, expanded local control, and improved student achievement has given way to one-size-fits-all funding schemes, fancy facilities, and a system-focused mentality that keeps administrators and their taxpayer-funded lobbyists wealthy.  It's no wonder they are always pushing for tax increases.
We can and must do better.  With over half of our state's budget devoted to K-12 funding, we cannot give up and we cannot continue to let our students endure the weight of such a failed system. That is why I opposed SB 19 and why I will be a continual advocate for our students.

Quote of the Week

"You cannot make a monopolistic supplier of a service pay much attention to its customers' wants - especially when it does not get its funds directly from its customers. The only solution is to break the monopoly, introduce competition and give the customers alternatives."
- Milton Friedman
We Need You Involved

In closing, if there is a constant theme that I hope made it through each of the three parts of my post-session newsletter, it's that our liberty is at stake and we need your help and involvement to defend our freedoms and regain what has been lost.  There are so many ways to get involved, from becoming a Republican Precinct Committeeperson to joining a precinct team to simply attending informational meetings.  If you would like to take a more active role, I encourage you to email me back and I will put you in touch with the right people to get you involved.

It is an honor to serve you in Topeka. 

Thank you.

In honor of your liberty,

Mary Pilcher-Cook 
Paid for by Pilcher Cook Senate Campiagn ; Sheila Wodtke, Treasurer