Monday, May 15, 2006

Waiting for the next shoe to drop in Kansas & figuring out the real cost of school finance

After much gnashing of teeth and too-many hours in the Statehouse, the Legislature finally passed a school finance plan, yet no one knows if it will pass constitutional scrutiny. If the plan doesn’t, then the Legislature could be called into special session yet again, and well, all political heck will break loose.

I would also argue that an even more important question is whether this plan provides the funding schools need to properly educate Kansas kids, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Right now the legality of the legislative plan is taking center stage. As soon as this week, the Kansas Supreme Court is expected to lay out a schedule for arguments in the next phase of the case. The court is a key player in this drama because it was their original ruling that the state’s old school finance plan was unconstitutional that set the Legislature scrambling.

Thus, the Legislature’s work isn’t complete until lawmakers and the rest of the state learn whether the Supreme Court likes what lawmakers did – an outcome that is a bit in doubt.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reports:

Last year, the Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to base school spending on cost studies that take into account how much money it will take to ensure students score proficient on state exams.

The post audit study did that, saying it would take $470 million in new funding next school year for the state to meet the testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But the post audit researchers didn't stop there.

NCLB requires more students to test proficient each year on state exams. Meeting those requirements, post audit said, would take greater numbers of dollars.

Not only would the Legislature have to put in $470 million next year, it also would have to increase spending by another $216 million in 2007 and $145 million in 2008.

That is a three-year total of $831 million

All of which is great, except that the Legislature actually passed a three-year plan that fell far short of that figure. Exactly how you figure the cost of the plan is somewhat disputed, though.

Most Kansas newspapers are reporting that the plan will cost the state $466.2 million over three years. (Note how far short that is of $831 million.) Chris Moon at the Capital-Journal is reporting that it’s a $541 million plan.

Just to clear things up, I emailed Chris, who kindly supplied me with his numbers. He noted that the figures were a subject of debate in the newsroom. The $541 figure includes $75 million for the teacher retirement program that “would have been added to schools regardless."

Chris said he uses the $541 number to report on the total cost of the plan. I see his point. However, for the purposes of the court case, I think I’ll stick with $466.2. That’s the amount that is actually going to deal with the issues the Supreme Court raised.

Given that, the Legislature’s plan falls even shorter of the mark set by the post audit report then it might appear at first glance.

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