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Kansas Supreme Court Rules State’s Public School Funding Formula Is Unconstitutional

Stephen Koranda, File Photo
Kansas Public Radio

The Kansas Supreme Court has handed down its decision in the long-awaited Gannon school funding case, and it comes as no surprise to those who have followed its many twists and turns.

“This case requires us to determine whether the State has met its burden to show that recent legislation brings the State's K-12 public school funding system into compliance with Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,” the court wrote in an opinion not attributable to any individual judge. “We hold it has not.”

The court gave the legislature until June 30 to remedy deficiencies in its school funding formula. If lawmakers fail to satisfy the court, public schools in the state will have to shut their doors.

The opinion goes out of its way to put the onus on lawmakers should the public schools close. It would “not be because this court would have ordered them closed," the opinion states. "Rather, it would be because this court would have performed its sworn duty to the people of Kansas."

In February, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling finding that the state’s block-grant funding law violated a provision of the Kansas Constitution. It then gave the legislature an opportunity to craft a constitutional solution “and minimize the threat of disruptions in funding for education.”

Late in the legislative session, lawmakers passed a measure that, essentially, moved money from wealthy districts to poorer ones. A handful of smaller school districts would have received a little bit more money under the plan. The legislature argued before the court three weeks ago that equity didn't necessarily mean more tax dollars were needed.

But the four plaintiff school districts – Hutchinson, Dodge City, Wichita, and Kansas City – said that's exactly what had to happen. The high court clearly agreed.

The legislative cure, the court said in its 47-page ruling, "increases and exacerbates the disparity among districts." That was exactly what the school districts argued.

The Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) has said it might require up to $80 million to fix the equity issue.

The ruling did not sit well with conservative Republican Rep. Jerry Lunn from Overland Park.

“This court has demonstrated that they’re trying to involve themselves in the appropriations process," he says. "I find it interesting that they’re not concerned about anything else other than education as far as making those judgements.”

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office managed the appeal, said the amount of money it might take to fix the problem is only one percent of the total the state spends on K-12 education.

“I am distressed that the strain and uncertainty caused by this dispute persists even though more than 99 percent of the school funding system for next year has been approved and accepted by both the Court and the Legislature," Schmidt said in a statement.

Gov. Sam Brownback issued a more terse statement calling the decision "unfortunate" and saying that the court "is engaging in political brinksmanship with this ruling, and the cost will be borne by our students."

Lawyer Alan Rupe, who argued the case before the high court and has been suing Kansas over school funding since 1989, called it a "victory for kids." He also says the high court has showed a lot of patience with the Legislature over the years.

"A lot more patience than I showed with my kids when I told them what to do and they didn’t do it," he says. "At some point, the inability to act becomes willful defiance.”

Now, the legislature will have 30 days to satisfy the high court and allow school districts to keep operating after July 1.

Kansas City, Kansas, Superintendent Cynthia Lane says she's confident the legislature will come up with a remedy and school districts can continue to operate. She says summer classes will be over by June 30 but the district still has a summer meals program for kids plus construction and remodeling projects to keep on track.

But Lane says she's ready for if a shutdown happens.

“We have a plan in case they don’t meet their timeline," she says. "I don’t ever want to implement that plan but we are prepared if that happens.”

The burden is now on lawmakers, who return to Topeka on Wednesday.

More from the AP:

The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday rejected some education funding changes enacted by the Legislatureearlier this year and threatened to order the state's public schools closed if lawmakers don't act by June 30.

The court ruled on a new school finance law that revised parts of the state's funding formula but that resulted in no change in total funds for most of the state's 286 school districts. It was the third school finance law approved in as many years as Republican lawmakers hoped to keep the court from following through on the threat it made in a February ruling to shut schools down.

The justices ruled that lawmakers failed to fulfill the court's order in February that funding to poor school districts be increased.

Lawmakers this year faced a budget crunch that followed massive personal income tax cuts and were hamstrung by strong political opposition to redistributing funds from wealthy districts.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the state slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's urging in an effort to stimulate the economy and a nationally watched fiscal experiment. Brownback hasn't backed off his signature tax cuts, and enough lawmakers haven't bucked him.

The state's lawyers argued that legislators made a good-faith effort to address the court's concerns about school funding and that the justices had no reason to shut down schools. But lawyers for four school districts suing the state argued that legislators only reshuffled existing funds.

The court's decision came after it heard arguments from attorneys. Legislators aren't scheduled to meet again this year except for a brief adjournment ceremony Wednesday.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts and followed up on one in 1999 that forced lawmakers to promise big increases in annual spending on public schools, which now tops $4 billion. Legislators kept their promises at first but backed off during the Great Recession.

The court has repeatedly said the Kansas Constitution requires lawmakers to finance a suitable education for every child.

The court's past rulings have made conservative Republicans who lead the Legislature increasingly hostile and suspicious of the justices. Six of the seven were appointed by Democratic or moderate Republican governors and only one by conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback.

The justices ordered an increase in aid to poor districts in 2014, and lawmakers complied. But when the price tag ballooned, GOP legislators rewrote the school funding law again to make spending more predictable. Last year's changes prompted the court's ruling in February.

Legislative leaders already have committed to writing another school funding law next year, prompting the state's lawyers to argue that this year's changes represented an acceptable short-term fix.

But attorneys for the school districts argued that legislators were obligated either to boost the state's overall spending on schools to help poor districts, or to redistribute existing dollars from wealthy districts to poor ones.

Sam covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. Before joining the station in August 2014 he covered health and education for KCPT.
Dan Margolies is editor in charge of health news at KCUR, the public radio station in Kansas City. Dan joined KCUR in April 2014. In a long and varied journalism career, he has worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star and Reuters. In a previous life, he was a lawyer. He has also worked as a media insurance underwriter and project development director for a video production firm.