There is a maelstrom brewing in K-12 education policy and finance, yet again. The center of the controversy is one little word, “suitable.” This is the term that is used in Article 6, Section 6 of the state constitution, which reads that the “Legislature [as opposed to local school boards] shall make suitable provision for the finance of the educational interests of the state.”    In his first State of the State address, Governor Sam Brownback asked legislators to define a “suitable” education.In response, a bill has been introduced in the state house to create a 19-member commission, composed of teachers, parents, academics, business people, and other stakeholders. Assuming that the bill passes through the legislative process, the commission’s report is due December 1, 2012.


    There is a maelstrom brewing in K-12 education policy and finance, yet again. The center of the controversy is one little word, “suitable.” This is the term that is used in Article 6, Section 6 of the state constitution, which reads that the “Legislature [as opposed to local school boards] shall make suitable provision for the finance of the educational interests of the state.”    In his first State of the State address, Governor Sam Brownback asked legislators to define a “suitable” education.In response, a bill has been introduced in the state house to create a 19-member commission, composed of teachers, parents, academics, business people, and other stakeholders. Assuming that the bill passes through the legislative process, the commission’s report is due December 1, 2012.
    Interestingly enough, this will not be the first time we have defined a suitable education in Kansas. Since the 1992, the Legislature has provided at least four other definitions, three of which have been repealed but the fourth of which is still on the books.
    The first set of suitability standards were provided in Quality Performance Accreditation Standards adopted in 1992. The act established 10 goals for the education system focused on preparing students to live, learn, and work in a global society. Even though these 10 standards have been repealed, in 1994 the Kansas Supreme Court in the USD 229 case recognized these 10 goals as representing the state’s expression of a suitable education.
    The second definition came as a result of the Legislature’s desire to conduct a cost study of K-12 education in Kansas in 2001. This legislation defined a suitable education “as a curricular program consisting of the subjects and courses required” under various statutes (the 3Rs, history, geography, government, spelling, English grammar and any other subjects deemed necessary by the state board of education), “the courses in foreign language, fine arts and physical education required to qualify for a state scholarship,” and the “courses included in the precollege curriculum prescribed by the board of regents.”
    To the chagrin of many in the Legislature, the cost study, infamously referred to as the Augenblick and Myers study, revealed that K-12 education was underfunded by about $800 million. This definition of suitability was repealed in 2005 soon after the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling in Montoy, which found that K-12 education was grossly underfunded. The findings in Montoy were based largely on the Augenblick and Myers study and its definition of a suitable education.
    The third and fourth efforts to define a suitable education were developed in the aftermath of Montoy in 2005, when the Legislature tasked its Division of Legislative Post Audit to do a cost study, similar to but more comprehensive than the Augenblick and Myers study. The Legislature this time narrowed its definition of a suitable education to subjects defined in existing statute.
    Compared to the previous definition in 2001, the Legislature wanted to exclude educational bells and whistles (foreign languages, and the like). However, the results of this study disappointed many legislators again. The cost of a “regular” K-12 education was still about three-fourths of a billion dollars more than the Legislature had appropriated. A fourth definition, which is broadly reflective of the Legislature’s thinking in 2005, is still codified in KSA 72-1127.
    So, what does this history tell us? The Legislature’s definition of a suitable education has moved from a more expansive one to a less expansive one based on how much it costs. Interesting.
    So, where are we now, and why do we need this new commission to redefine the curricular components of a suitable education?
    In the aftermath of the Legislative Post Audit’s study in 2006, the Legislature reluctantly agreed to add $755 million to suitably fund K-12 education. However, because of the recent recession, the Legislature and former Gov. Mark Parkinson failed to deliver on $300 million of the agreed-upon $755 million.
    As a consequence, the “Schools for Fair Funding” went back to court filing a new case, Gannon v State of Kansas, which will mostly likely come to trial in 2012. The state is likely to lose this case given the precedents established in Montoy and Legislative Post Audit’s study in 2006, unless, of course, the Legislature can derive yet another definition of suitability that will relieve the state of many of its current curricular funding responsibilities.
    Let us hope that this new commission is not really the “suitability lite” commission, with its unstated but real purpose to concoct a minimalistic definition of a suitable education based on what the Legislature wants to pay versus what all our children need to compete in a global economy. Let us hope that this commission recognizes that there is much more to a suitable education in the 21st century than the three Rs.
    Otherwise, far from resolving this issue, we will spend many more years in court fighting new versions of the old battle as local school boards with more financial means are able to provide the types of educational opportunities that prepare their kids for the 21st century. While local school boards with less financial means will be back to the 19th and 20th centuries, when their mill levies were abhorrently high and they were unable to afford the range of subjects necessary for their children to receive a quality education.