Dr. Lori Taylor, Bush School of Government, Texas A&M University

We’ve had two days of presentations and conversations with Dr. Lori Taylor and Jason Willis – the consultants hired by the legislature to conduct a cost study of school finance.

Friday, it was a meeting with the two finance committees – the House K-12 Education Budget Committee and the Senate Select Committee on School Finance. There was very little interaction in that meeting after the two hour PowerPoint presentation by Taylor and Willis. Chair Molly Baumgardner (R-Louisburg) limited the legislators to one question each so very little was revealed.

Today Taylor and Willis met with educators at the KASB building in Topeka and this was a much more interactive time. There were about 50 people in attendance – Superintendents, School Board members, Principals, Parents, Deena Horst and Ann Mah of the State Board of Education, Senator Anthony Hensley, and Representative Nancy Lusk. KNEA lobbyist Mark Desetti, KNEA President Mark Farr, and KNEA Director of Teaching and Learning Idalia Shuman were there as well.

Asked who she got advice from in making her decision to review data only back to 2016, Taylor said she had met with a “professor from KU” and Walt Chappell, among others. The mention of Chappell brought quite a response! Chappell has been an outspoken opponent of increasing school funding. And some were wondering if the KU professor might have been Art Hall, the Koch-endowed economics professor.

There were a number of alarming things in the presentation.

Taylor challenged the way Kansas considers poverty asserting that using the federal poverty level might not be appropriate for Kansas where the cost of living is less than in New York City. A change in this would have a major impact on at-risk funding.

How she might be considering “efficiencies” is another concern. This came up in particular reference to bilingual instruction and raised issues of equating “cheap” as “efficient.” For example, grouping all Spanish speaking students in one classroom to reduce personnel costs might be efficient in terms of cost (you only need one bilingual teacher instead of several) but would be less effective in teaching children English as they would have no English speaking role models in class. After questioning from Desetti, she indicated that she agreed effectiveness had to be part of any study and not just efficient in terms of cost. That was a relief!

Another bone of contention was the issue of the cost of labor and specifically teachers. Taylor plans to look at the cost of labor relative to “what teachers will accept” now. KNEA and some superintendents raised other issues including the better pension benefits and due process protections in our neighboring states. Taylor indicated that she would try to look at the impact of pension differences. Another thing she seemed unable to answer specific questions about was how to assess the widely varying benefit programs across the state.

One of their most common refrains was “we don’t have a dataset for that.”

You can see their full PowerPoint presentation by clicking here.

The legislature is off on Monday and Tuesday. Under the Dome will be back on Wednesday.