While they generally hold differing political views, several members of the Kansas State Board of Education sharply disagree with the assertion that they and their elected colleagues don’t have the expertise to make sound financial recommendations when it comes to funding Kansas’ public education system.
“I think it’s important to figure out that the state board looks at things far beyond Rose (standards),” Jeff King, attorney for the Kansas Legislature, told the Kansas Supreme court justices toward the end of oral arguments in the Gannon school finance lawsuit this past week. “But also to understand that their expertise in curriculum matters does not necessarily make, lend to their expertise in financial matters.”
“I was disappointed that he took that position,” said Ken Willard, R-Hutchinson, who has voiced his more conservative political views since elected to the 10-member state board of education in 2003. “I think it ignores the reality that we do have a better understanding of funding than the Legislature. I don’t think it properly decribes for the public the role of the state board.”
Reached by phone on Friday, King said his comments in response to a question from Chief Justice Lawton Nuss regarding the legitimacy of the state board’s $893 million funding recommendation to the Legislature for the next two years were a reflection of the board and Legislature’s separate constitutional responsibilities for funding schools, not the state board’s level of financial expertise.
“My basic point is, the constitution requries and empowers the Legislature to have power for school finance for the state,” King said. “They (state board members) certainly can make recommendations. The legislature has considered their recommendations. Agencies make budget recommendations all the time. They are just recommendations and not constitutional madates for what the Legislature must do.”
Senate bill 19, the legislation state lawmakers approved in June that provides $194.7 million for the 2017-18 school year and another $290 million for the 2018-19 school year, is far below the state board’s recommendation.
King asserts the state board’s $893 million funding recommendation for the next two school years encompasses far more than what the Rose standards call for, which he says are minimal educational standards.
“My point is that the board considers things far and above (the Rose standards),” he said. “It’s not a constitutional mandate.”
“I’m not surprised he would say that,” added Ann Mah, D-Topeka, a more liberal voice on the board who served in the Kansas House from 2005 to 2013. “I know he had to make the best case for his client. I think the court will see through that. He’s just wrong on that point. We have the experts. We know what it costs.”
Jim Porter, R-Fredonia, chairman of the state board and considered a moderate politically, reiterated that the $893 million recommendation was based on the board and Kansas State Department of Education’s “Kansans Can” vision to lead the world in the success of every Kansas student, a vision based on feedback from hundreds of Kansans, including business people who have said they need a more skilled workforce in the coming years.
“We have to make a budget request every year (to the legislature),” Porter said. “It’s not discretionary on our part. We based it on what we thought it would take to meet our vision. We didn’t come up with that number out of the air. They (state lawmakers) appropriate the money and it’s the courts decision to interpret the law.”
Disconnect between the state board and lawmakers?
Despite King’s comments, Porter believes the state board’s efforts to bridge a communication gap with lawmakers haven’t suffered but acknowledged that work remains to be done to inform legislators of their responsibilities to educate Kansas school children, a topic of several state board discussions in recent months.
“I believe that we are respected by the majority (of the legislature),” he said. “If we’re going to meet the needs of the students in this state, we need to work together. We’re willing to do that.”
Porter said many of the education decisions, including SB 19, made by the 2017 legislature were more positive than past years, including funding for full-day kindergarten that will free up more at-risk dollars and money for teacher mentoring.
Mah said the atmosphere in the Kansas Legislature this year has improved significantly regarding education.
“We’re making great progress,” she said. “I really feel the mutal respect is returning. We appreciate the Legislature’s efforts to get our opinions.”
Willard, who has been a liaison between the state board of education and the Legislature during the Brownback administration, agrees with Porter and Mah that state lawmakers have made efforts to understand the workings and responsibilities of the state board of education. However, he said he agrees with many legislators who want to see the results of their investment in education.
“I have never been a huge advocate of dumping money into education,” he said, “but we have been making strides on making Kansas public education worth the money. I’ve always said if it’s not getting results, then that’s a problem.”
King, a former Republican state senator from Independence, said he doesn’t believe there is a disconnect between the state board of education and lawmakers, citing SB 19 as an example of their cooperation.
“I think it’s important to be clear,” he said. “The Legislature partnered with the state board. This is not an antagonistic relationship. My point is that the board considers things far and above the Rose standards.”
In the meantime, Alan Rupe, the attorney for the school districts in the Gannon lawsuit, said he believes a disconnect remains between the legislature and the state board and that the ligitation boils down to the philosophical differences between the two as to how much money is needed to educate Kansas schoolchildren.
”I think the gap is pretty clearly defined,” he said. “If your point of view is ‘I don’t want to spend money’, that point of view presents the breakdown in communication.”
“The state board is looking at what it’s going to cost to move the needle on the Rose factors,” Rupe continued. “The legislature is looking at how much it wants to spend. Those two numbers are very different. I think the court is going to be more aligned with what the state board is looking at than what the legislature is looking at.”