Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Plaintiff school districts, state battle in start of school finance hearing

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — An attorney representing 54 school districts on Monday said the Legislature must meet its constitutional obligation and increase school funding.

"So we don't lose another generation of kids," Alan Rupe said to a three-judge panel in the school finance trial that got under way.

Rupe said the state has cut $511 million from schools in recent years, undoing progress that was made during a previous boost of court-ordered school funding. "The patient has flat-lined," he said.

But the attorney representing the state said the Legislature has done a good job financing schools through a difficult economic period. Arthur Chalmers also argued that sometimes money doesn't matter when it comes to student performance, and even if it does, the court shouldn't get in the Legislature's business.

Despite claims of inadequate funding by some school districts, Chalmers said Kansas students are improving. "Kids have not been left behind," he maintained.

Rupe and Chalmers outlined their cases before state district court judges Franklin Theis, Robert Fleming and Jack Burr. The trial includes hundreds of exhibits and is expected to last several weeks. The panel's decision will probably be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

The first witness, Kansas City, Kan. School Superintendent Cynthia Lane said 87 percent of students in her district live in families who earn below the poverty level.

Lane said students were making improvements when school funding from the state increased from 2005-2008, but when the Great Recession-era cuts started, test scores started going down.

Lane said that schools are under numerous requirements from the federal government, Legislature and State Board of Education to make sure that students who graduate are ready for college or work. Is the money provided to schools enough to achieve that goal, she was asked. For a significant number of students, Lane said the answer was no.

"It keeps me up all night," Lane said of the fact that nearly four in 10 students in her district do not meet student proficiency standards.

She says the school district tries as hard as it can. "It's the morally right thing to do educate all students regardless of circumstances," she said.

Lane said school officials know what strategies work to help students, but the district just doesn't have the resources to implement them.

Earlier, Rupe said the state's education cuts have hurt students, especially minorities and those with special needs.

"We are leaving behind a large percentage of Kansas kids because the state of Kansas is not providing an adequate education," Rupe said.

Base state aid was supposed to hit $4,492 per student under state law, but has been cut $3,780 per student.

Meanwhile, Rupe said, schools continue to face increasing requirements and standards. "The actual costs have gone up while the resources have gone down," he said.

But Chalmers, the attorney representing the state, said the Legislature "has done a pretty good job" of funding public schools along with other state needs.

Chalmers also argued that the plaintiff school districts' under-funding argument provided a "disingenuous picture" because it didn't include local and federal dollars. He said an increased reliance on local property taxes for schools was a positive because local officials know better what is needed.

He also said studies are mixed on whether increasing funds to schools results in improved academic achievement.

"You can't assume that paying more money will result in increases in student achievement," he said.