Kansas Debates Findings Of School Finance Poll

The idea of courts determining how much money should be spent on public schools has been opposed by a large number of Kansans as a recent poll by a conservative lobby group suggests. However, public school advocates are pillorying the poll, stating the questions were loaded with false or misleading information intended to sway the way people would respond.

SurveyUSA, on behalf of Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that lobbies for lower taxes, limited government and "school choice" initiatives such as charter schools and vouchers, conducted the poll. According to Peter Hancock of The Dispatch, respondents were asked for their opinions about a school finance lawsuit now pending before the Kansas Supreme Court, in the first question of the poll. A lower court ruling that said the Kansas Legislature has violated the state constitution's requirement to provide adequate funding for public schools is challenged by the appeal.

The legislature was ordered by the court to increase state funding by nearly 15%, to $4,492 per pupil, the amount already provided for in statute, but which the Legislature has not fully funded through appropriations. In asking people's opinion about the courts' role in deciding such a case, the KPI poll first explained the case differently:

"A state court has effectively ordered legislators to increase school funding by $443 million, which would also automatically increase local property taxes by another $154 million," the survey stated. "Regardless of whether you believe schools are adequately funded, how would you respond to this statement: It is appropriate for the courts to have final say on decisions of how much taxpayer money is spent on education."

With half saying they disagreed, and 47% saying they agreed, the survey of 500 adults from throughout the state showed the public almost evenly divided on the issue. A margin of error of 4.5% points was identified in the survey.

Dave Trabert, KPI president, said that the claim that local property taxes would rise as a result of the decision was based on an assumption that if the state was ordered to increase its share of education funding, then local districts would automatically allow their "local option budgets," or LOBs, to rise accordingly.

"Unless local school boards proactively vote to reduce their LOB rates, local taxes would increase by default," Trabert said in an email to the Journal-World.

However, the premise of the question was misleading according to others familiar with the lawsuit. Districts can supplement their base budgets by up to 31% with money raised from local property taxes under state law. Local school boards, as part of their annual budgeting process, must set those LOBs each year.

"Nothing is automatic," said John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. "The Legislature would determine how best to fund the schools, not the courts. KPI knows this and yet they persist in fear mongering."

Some districts, as noted by Lawrence Superintendent, Rick Doll, were forced to raise their LOBs to make up for cuts in state funding thus restoring those state cuts could lead to cuts in local taxes.

"In some districts they've had to jack (up) their local mill rate, if they wanted to keep their funding at the same level," he said. "So they either had to choose to cut their funding or increase their mill rate."

The poll and the wording of the questions were defended by SurveyUSA CEO Jay Leve.

"We work with our clients in collaboration and ask questions we believe are accurate," Leve said. "We don't intentionally put false premises in any question."

A ruling is expected around the same time the Kansas Legislature begins its 2014 session in January.

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