Sorting Fact And Fiction From Politicians On Kansas Schools

Jan 18, 2019
Originally published on January 21, 2019 10:34 am

Teachers fleeing the state? Promises to schools broken time and again?

Here’s some context for the statements you heard about Kansas education Wednesday night — both in Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s State of the State Speech and Republican Senate President Susan Wagle’s response.

Kelly: “We’ve fallen into a troubling pattern. It begins with a promise from elected leaders to fund our schools. Then a failure to follow through on that promise. That is going to change this year. This year, we will end this cycle of litigation.”

Kansas has faced school finance lawsuits for a long time. Oh, let’s say since the 1970s. Back in the day, it was all about making sure poor school districts had resources akin to their richer cousins. Then there was a kind of turning point in school finance lawsuits nationally. The fights became not just about rich-poor gaps, but about whether states really spend enough to give all students a decent education. After all, tons of kids still aren’t passing state math and reading tests.

The 5 Themes at the Heart of Kansas’ Ongoing School Finance Lawsuit

In the mid-2000s, Kansas finally promised to give schools a lot more resources. But it reneged on that by slicing hundreds of millions of dollars amid the Great Recession and then-Gov. Brownback’s sweeping tax cuts. The courts have gradually forced restoration. Kelly wants to sign off on the last $100 million or so needed to put the latest lawsuit to bed.

Kelly: “Remember, just a few short years ago, schools closed early because they literally could not afford to stay open. Test scores dropped for the first time in a decade ... Teachers fled the state.”

Kelly rattled off several ways she says that underfunding hurt schools. Some of what she mentioned is true. A few things are debatable or even untrue.

Kelly seemed to reference 2015 in particular — the year of clawbacks. That’s when Brownback rejiggered school budgets eight months into the fiscal year — deleting about $45 million and causing widespread anxiety and anger among superintendents trying to pay bills.

Shaving days off of academic calendars was indeed one of the ways a few districts found to cope.

But did teachers really flee Kansas for schools in other states? That was a popular narrative at the time that even made national news.

The data to support it never existed. Statewide tallies even suggested more teachers were moving to Kansas to teach here than were leaving.

That’s not to say Kansas doesn’t have a teacher shortage. Parts of the state do, and the situation recently got worse.

What about test scores? They dropped in two ways in 2015, but who gets the blame? Legally speaking, schools had already been underfunded for years.

Scores fell dramatically on state math and English tests — but everyone knew they would. That’s because Kansas overhauled the tests and set the bar a lot higher as part of a national push to make instruction in those subjects more rigorous.

Kansas students didn’t fare well that year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, either. Many states struggled, causing nationwide hand-wringing and speculation about what might have gone wrong. Some theorized a relationship to the same major shift in instruction mentioned above.

Wagle: “She would have us surrender to the edicts of an unelected Supreme Court.”

Wagle will likely fight Kelly tooth and nail on school funding. Conservative Republicans have long disagreed with the courts on adding more money to schools.

It’s correct that members of the Kansas Supreme Court are appointed, not elected. But it’s worth noting that Kansans actually do get to boot them out at the ballot box.

So far, voters have stuck by the justices, despite Republican efforts to rally the electorate against them.

Wagle: “Candidate Kelly promised no new taxes. Governor Kelly has proposed a budget that will absolutely require them.”

Expect a lot of arguing in coming years about what is and isn’t possible without raising taxes.

Kelly’s budget proposal includes a school funding increase and leaves the state in the black at the end of the fiscal year. But it relies in part on things like pushing off pension obligations and taking from the state highway fund — tactics similar to what Republicans have done recently.

Moreover, we don’t know how Kelly will propose making ends meet in coming years as school funding gradually ramps up under a multi-year plan designed to satisfy the courts.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.

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