The WestEd cost study recommending that lawmakers infuse public schools with up to $2.1 billion over the next five years in an effort to increase high school graduation rates from 86 percent to 95 percent has many legislators fuming.  As one House member told the Kansas City Star, that kind of cash would “bankrupt the state.”

The study’s failure to acknowledge that schools haven’t even been spending all the money they received in prior years is also appalling.

Districts began the last school year sitting on operating reserves equal to 19.3 percent of their FY 2017 current operating costs. In comparison, state law requires that the state budget maintain cash reserves of 7.5 percent.  School districts’ operating cash reserves totaled $928 million, which is nearly double the $468 million they held in 2005.

Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert says, “The vast majority of that increase represents state and local tax dollars received but not spent.”

Education lobbyists claim schools began setting money aside when there was uncertainty about school funding, but Trabert says the facts show otherwise.

“Two-thirds of the increase – $312 million – was in the bank at the end of the 2009 school year. That’s especially significant because it occurred after the last court-ordered funding increase.”

His comment refers to the Montoy case, which was settled by adding about $750 million to funding over a three-year period beginning in 2006.

School district savings account began steadily climbing about the time lawmakers infused schools with more funding in the aftermath of the Montoy school financing lawsuit.

“The fact that they were getting money and increasing their reserves indicates they didn’t need all they got – if they needed any more at all,” Trabert says.

Schools had 12.3 percent of their operating costs in reserve for the 2006 school year on average. If each district maintained reserves at the same percentage they did 2006, operating reserves would be $338 million less according to Kansas Policy Institute’s calculations.  Forcing districts to use money left over from prior years wouldn’t make the education bureaucracy happy with the Legislature, but it’s a viable solution that helps students without taking more from taxpayers.

The Kansas Supreme Court gave lawmakers an April 30 deadline to adopt a new school financing formula. The new formula must be adequate and equitable, and it must be reasonably calculated so students who are falling behind in math and reading can catch up. The Court’s opinion is predicated on the idea that the amount of money schools spend translates into student results. The recent school spending study bought that theory even though history shows simply spending more money has not improved outcomes. It recommends a sum Kansas simply can’t afford. The General Fund budget is $6.6 billion; adding another $2 billion won’t happen without dramatically cutting other state expenses or instituting a massive tax increase.

Regardless of whether legislators authorize any more than the $293 million increase they gave schools last year, they should require school boards to put leftover cash to work for students.

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