(The Sentinel) – More than four years after the Kansas Supreme Court compelled school funding to be increased by more than $1 billion, 32 school districts in the state are still dues-paying members of Schools For Fair Funding, a coalition of school districts paying lawyers to monitor school funding.
The most recent figures available show through Fiscal Year 2023, Kansas schools have diverted over $9 million to attorneys to first sue the state, and now monitor the gains won in subsequent court decisions.
The organization’s Mission Statement from its website estimates it represents one-third of the public school children in the state and adds: “We want policy makers to restore funding for our public school classrooms. Save our communities and neighborhood public schools.”
With record levels of spending on K-12 education in Kansas, now over $17,000 per student, and stubbornly-low achievement test results, does SFFF have misplaced priorities, and outlived its usefulness after more than three decades of operation? What are schools getting for their membership fees?
We asked attorney John Robb, counsel for the organization, who began by defining the group’s mission:
- Monitor school finance issues to assure continued implementation of the Gannon reforms
- Preserve the adequacy and equity of the school finance formula
- When needed, school finance litigation
“SFFF is governed by the member school districts. SFFF has been the umbrella organization for legislative change in school finance and school finance litigation in Kansas for more than 35 years.
“Why does SFFF still exist? The short answer is to monitor school funding and protect it. Be proactive rather than reactive. SFFF sponsored the Gannon litigation that was responsible for replacing the school funding that was lost during and after the Great Recession. While the Gannon case is largely history, the Kansas Supreme Court did not dismiss the case. It held it open to assure that the promised funding would actually be appropriated and provided. The Court did not take this step at the end of the previous Montoy litigation (also a SFFF project), and as soon as the case was dismissed, the legislature began paring back the new funding. The Court did not want this to happen again so it left the Gannon case open.
“SFFF thus remains active to interface with the Supreme Court as the funding plan may be changed. SFFF also moved from active litigation to monitoring the status of school funding issues. That is what we do now. SFFF is the only organization that is dedicated solely to school funding. SFFF is not nearly as public in its actions now, choosing to work the legislature in a more private manner.”
Robb concludes that member schools benefit, even after all these years, by their participation in the organization:
“SFFF implements its actions through my law firm, Somers, Robb & Robb, and through the member school districts. As part of our duties for SFFF, we review, analyze and track every bill filed in the Kansas Legislature that deals with schools and school finance. We educate our members on the bills that are filed and moving. To aid SFFF in school finance monitoring, my office employs a full time lobbyist in Topeka, Sean Miller, of Capital Strategies. Sean monitors the day to day of school finance while the legislature is in session and also monitors interim hearings and other matters that may impact school finance. He also maintains legislative contact throughout the session to inform legislators of the impact that various bills might have on school operations.”
Dave Trabert, CEO of the Sentinel’s parent company, Kansas Policy Institute, says school districts are also paying the state school board association, and in some cases, additional lobbyists, to monitor (and demand more) funding.
“Paying money for multiple organizations to monitor school funding legislation is just another indication that many education officials prioritize the system over students. State audits and our investigations repeatedly show school districts refusing to comply with laws designed to improve outcomes. They won’t spend at-risk funding on incremental services for kids below grade level and they won’t allow school board members to conduct needs assessments in each school and allocate resources to overcome proficiency barriers.
“There are more Kansas students below grade level in reading and math than are proficient. The State Board of Education is fully aware that many districts won’t allocate resourees as required, but does nothing. That’s why unacceptably low achievement won’t change until adult behaviors change.”