The Kansas Supreme Court determines schools not equitably funded, set up another round of hearings for lower court.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature failed to meet its constitutional obligation to equitably fund poorer school districts in a highly-anticipated decision announced Friday morning.
It ruled that the state's actions created "wealth-based disparities" between richer and poorer school districts by reducing and pro-rating supplemental funding to the poorer districts, but sent back the broader question of total school funding to the Shawnee County District Court.
The broader question on the "adequacy" of funding will be answered by the lower court following guidelines set in the ruling. The Supreme Court said the lower court's previous decision to increase education spending by $440 million was based on an improper test, and that the constitutional requirement of adequate funding was not attached to a specific dollar amount.
"I was pleased the court also recognized that total dollars spent is not the touchstone for adequacy in education," said House Speaker Ray Merrick in a joint response with Gov. Sam Brownback and Senate President Susan Wagle.
"I have long argued that outcomes should be the determining factor when considering the adequacy of school funding," Rep. Ron Ryckman said in an email. "Additionally, I agree that all Kansas students should have equal opportunity to receive a quality education. The court’s focus on these two areas is important for the Legislature going forward. As the session progresses, I am committed to seriously considering the areas where the court says equity is lacking and to ensuring that the great potential of students in Kansas is being achieved."
The lower court has been asked to "promptly" set hearing and hear evidence to determine school funding adequacy. However, by solving the equity question, the adequacy requirement may also be met, the ruling stated.
John Robb, a lawyer for the school districts thinks the lower court will again decide on his clients' behalf, the Associated Press reported.
"I see that we have to go around the block again," he said in response to the ruling.
USD 443 Superintendent Alan Cunningham counts the Kansas Supreme Court decision as a partial win for poorer school districts across the state and maybe a total win depending on how the Shawnee County court rules in the following proceedings.
USD 443 was one of four school districts, along with Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita, to file the lawsuit in 2010.
"The Supreme Court really did affirm the importance of adequate and equitable funding," Cunningham said.
The lack of state-funding to poorer school districts "has been a real hard hit on local taxpayers," Cunningham said. Since 2010, the USD 443 school board has had to nearly zero out the portion of the school's mill levy for capital projects to meet general funding requirements, rather than raising the overall mill levy.
Under the Supreme Court's ruling, the Legislature could avoid further hearings on the equity question by fully funding both the supplemental payments and capital outlay payments. The State Department of Education estimated it could cost an additional $129 million, the Associated Press reported.
The Legislature has until July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, to act. "We realize this isn't a simple task to resolve this," Cunningham said. "We think the legislators will do what's right for the kids in our public schools."
If the Legislature acts but does not fully fund the two provisions, the courts will need to determine if the action taken creates equitability. If the Legislature does not act to address equitability, the lower court is authorized to order the action.
"Education continues to be a top priority of mine," Senate Majority Whip Sen. Garrett Love said in an email. "I am committed to working with other members of the Legislature, teachers and administrators to ensure we have an equitable and adequate school finance system that gives all Kansas kids the opportunity to succeed."
At legislative forums in Dodge City, Love has been an adamant defender of the Republicans' record on education and believes the party has been unfairly maligned for the cuts to education spending that started under Democratic governor Mark Parkinson.
"A couple of the main funding issues — capital outlay and supplemental General state aid — that the court pointed at as problems began under Democratic governors," the senator wrote." In discussions to fix these issues, I will continue to make protecting our western Kansas schools a top priority."
Large single year increases to education spending under Parkinson's and Kathleen Sebelius's administrations were irresponsible and left the current Legislature and administration holding the fallout, he told a group of residents recently.
The largest teachers' union in Kansas, the Kansas National Education Association, published a letter calling the decision that will lead to additional court proceedings a disappointment.
The cuts to schools during the Great Recession were supposed to be temporary, the group said, but instead of restoring funding the governor and Legislature enacted tax cuts for the wealthy and "shifted the responsibility to the middle class and the poorest Kansans."
KNEA called on the Legislature to increase funding without waiting for additional rulings.
"Our task is to come to resolution on capital outlay funding and local option budgets before July 1," Wagle said. "We now have some clarity as we work toward resolution of issues that began years ago under prior administrations."
"We have an opportunity for progress," Brownback said. "My commitment is to work with legislative leadership to address the allocation issue identified by the court. We will fix this."
In the ruling, the court also affirmed its authority to make this ruling as the questions were constitutional and not political.
Brownback and Republican legislators had previously said the courts setting education funding from the bench undermines the authority of the legislative and executive branches and could lead to a constitutional crisis.
"Through the constitutional assignment of different roles to different entities, the people of Kansas have ensured that the education of public school children is not entirely dependent upon political influence or the constant vigilance of voters," the ruling stated.