Sticker-shocked Kansas lawmakers may temper education goals - KCTV5 News

Sticker-shocked Kansas lawmakers may temper education goals

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Kansas state Rep. Melissa Rooker, right, R-Fairway, asks questions during a joint meeting of House and Senate committees on school funding, as state Sen. Pat Pettey, left, D-Kansas City, watches, Monday, March 19, 2018, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (AP) Kansas state Rep. Melissa Rooker, right, R-Fairway, asks questions during a joint meeting of House and Senate committees on school funding, as state Sen. Pat Pettey, left, D-Kansas City, watches, Monday, March 19, 2018, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (AP)
TOPEKA, KS (AP) -

Kansas lawmakers suffering sticker shock over a report saying that improving the state's public schools could cost an additional $2 billion a year began Monday to consider setting less ambitious educational goals than the ones that led to the big price tag.

The out-of-state consultants behind last week's study provided new, lower estimates tied to more modest goals for improving the state's high school graduation rate and students' performance on standardized tests. Some Republican lawmakers who were stunned by last week's report appeared less anxious after the consultants testified during a committee meeting Monday.

Legislators are facing a Kansas Supreme Court mandate to increase spending on public schools after it ruled in October that the current education funding isn't sufficient under the state constitution. GOP leaders commissioned the consultants' report, with some Republicans hoping it would show that the state already was spending close to enough money.

Instead, the report released Friday came with a potentially big price tag: a 44 percent increase in school districts' more than $4 billion a year in operating funds. But the cost was tied to increasing the statewide graduation rate from 86 percent to 95 percent and vastly improving student scores on standardized tests, and legislative lawyers suggested the goal was to hit both targets by 2022.

The consultants, Texas A&M University professor Lori Taylor and Jason Willis, a director at the San Francisco-based nonprofit education research agency WestEd, said the state could take a decade or longer to hit those goals. Or, they said, the state could set other targets, such as a graduation rate of 90 percent or 92 percent.

"It's time for that really broad discussion of: 'What is it that we want to have?'" said state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a conservative Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of a special Senate school funding committee. "What are realistic outcomes for us?"

For example, the consultants said, setting the target graduation rate at 92 percent could cost the state as little as $228 million more a year, depending on how ambitious it was about improving students' test scores.

Baumgardner's committee and a House school funding panel met together for more than two hours Monday to review the consultants' report and question them. Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, said the big potential costs resulted from "lofty" goals and questioned whether the state should "chase" a 95 percent graduation rate.

Hitting the goal would give Kansas the highest graduation rate in the nation. State officials promised the federal government last year that it would hit the mark — but by 2030.

The state Supreme Court also is concerned with how well students perform. Four local school districts sued the state over education funding in 2010, and the justices have ruled that legislators are failing to finance a suitable education for every child. The court has said one of its biggest concerns is helping underperforming students.

"People will always talk about how much we want to do until we get the bill," said Kansas Association of School Boards lobbyist Mark Tallman.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said as he left the meeting that he believes lawmakers could satisfy the court by phasing in a $300 million increase in funding over a few years and committing to future increases to keep up with inflation.

But Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, still predicted after the meeting that the state could need a big tax increase to satisfy the court's demands. She issued a statement far more pessimistic than comments even from other Republicans.

"The bottom line is that Kansans cannot afford what the court is demanding, and we cannot afford what the new study is recommending," Wagle said.

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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