Kansas Supreme Court: State’s public school funding levels are unconstitutional

The Kansas State Capitol Building in Topeka. Enlarge photo

March 7, 2014, 10:12 a.m. Updated: 7 March 2014, 5:10 p.m.

— The Kansas Supreme Court handed down a mixed ruling today in a school finance lawsuit, ordering the Legislature to restore certain kinds of funding in the state education budget, but sidestepping the larger question of whether base per pupil funding for K-12 education is adequate.

The court remanded that larger question back to a special three-judge panel, with instructions to use a different standard for determining whether the legislature has met its constitutional duty to “make suitable provision” for financing public schools.

The unanimous decision means the Kansas Legislature has until July 1 to restore what is called “equalization aid” for capital outlay and local option budgets.

If the Legislature does anything less than restore full funding, the three-judge panel will then have to review what was done to determine whether the state has cured the inequities between low-wealth and higher-wealth districts.

And if the Legislature does nothing by July 1, the court has given the trial panel a number of options.

“Ultimately, the panel must ensure the inequities in the present operation of the (capital outlay and local option budget) statutes are cured,” the court said.

Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican legislative leaders praised the court decision, saying that by refusing to order a specific amount of funding, the court has deferred to the Legislature what is the proper amount of school finance.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt and other GOP leaders said the court will allow legislators to make the decisions on how to make the funding system more fair to low-income districts, and that that may not even require any extra funding.

The ruling "did not attach a particular number to that," Schmidt said.

Brownback also dismissed criticism that his tax cuts have led to under-funding of schools and will impede the Legislature from providing more funds for education. "These policies are helping," Brownback said. "They are producing more revenues. We need this tax structure so we can grow," he said.

Brownback also laid the blame for school funding problems to his predecessor, former Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat. Parkinson and the Legislature reduced school funding when the state suffered historic drops in revenue during the Great Recession.

The Republicans also said that the court emphasized that a constitutional system would be based on student outcomes instead of the total amount of funding. And they said the decision may open up whether the entire school finance formula needs to be overhauled.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said now that the decision has been made, legislators will tackle the issue. "We know what the parameters are. Now we can start working on the solutions. Everything is wide open," he said.

While Shawnee Mission School District officials say they are pleased a decision was rendered by the state's high court, they said the decision only impacts the equity issue related to capital outlay and supplemental general funding.

"The question of adequacy was remanded back to the lower court panel, so that question remains unanswered," said Dr. Jim Hinson, SMSD superintendent. "The decision today does not provide any additional revenue to the Shawnee Mission School District.

Hinson said the district will continue to follow the case closely as it unfolds.

"The Shawnee Mission School District will continue to advocate on behalf of its students to be able to provide excellent educational programs and services to meet the needs of all students and the expectations of our community," he added.

In today's much-anticipated ruling, the court said Kansas' poor school districts were harmed when the state made the decision to cut certain payments when tax revenues declined during the Great Recession.

The case also has broader implications beyond the classroom: Kansas enacted sweeping cuts to income taxes in 2012 and 2013 championed by Brownback that have reduced the amount of available resources to comply with a court order. Lawmakers could be forced to reconsider the tax measures, which Kansas and other Republican-run states have pushed as a means to stimulate their economies.

Kansas legislators had delayed any decisions on school funding until the high court made a final judgment.

At a news conference the Kansas National Education Association blamed Brownback for failing to restore recession-era cuts to schools while implementing massive tax cuts.

"The sacrifices and funding cuts were supposed to be temporary, but the first opportunity to live up to the promise to restore funding came and went," said KNEA President Karen Godfrey. "Instead, a tax policy was enacted that cut taxes for the wealthy and shifted the responsibility to the middle class and poorest Kansans. At the same time, we saw the largest cut to public education in state history," Godfrey said.

Because of the tax cuts, KNEA officials said they don't see how the state can sustain the amount of revenue needed for schools.

A state Department of Education official estimates legislators must increase funding by $129 million, in addition to the more than $3 billion the state has budgeted for the 2014-2015 school year. But longterm, a decision on providing an adequate amount of funding could require much more revenue.

"We have compromised the revenue system seriously," said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the KNEA. Brownback has said the tax cuts would stimulate the economy.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, blamed Brownback for the school finance mess, citing historically large cuts made by Brownback to schools. Davis, who is running for governor against Brownback, said he and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, offered a plan two years ago to restore cuts made to schools.

"That was a time when we could have restored these cuts. We saw this case bubbling up through the system. We wanted to get in front of it," Davis said.

"He (Brownback) chose a very reckless tax plan the state couldn't afford over funding our public schools," Davis said. Democrats have said the tax cuts will bankrupt state services, while Brownback has said the cuts will spur the economy.

The Davis-Hensley plan would have restored cuts to schools over three years with funds coming from state revenue that at that time had exceeded expectations. Asked how the Legislature comes up with funding now for schools, Davis said the Legislature will have to discuss that.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 on behalf of parents and school districts who argued the state had harmed students because spending cuts resulted in lower test scores. State attorneys maintained that legislators did their best to minimize cuts to education.

A three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court said in January 2013 that the lawsuit was valid, and the state appealed that ruling to the high court.

John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, saw Friday's ruling as a victory because the justices rejected the state's arguments that the issues in the case were political ones, to be determined by the Legislature and governor.

He predicted that after the next round of lower-court hearings, the outcome will mirror what happened previously: An order for the state to increase its total annual spending on schools by at least $440 million.

"I see that we have to go around the block again," he said.

Robb also said that the general guidelines set by the high court to help determine how much the state must spend overall are in line with what the parents and school districts had suggested.

Brownback, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and legislative leaders scheduled a Friday afternoon news conference to discuss the ruling.

"This is a complex decision that requires thoughtful review," Brownback said in a statement. "I will work with leadership in the Kansas Senate and House to determine a path forward that honors our tradition of providing a quality education to every child and that keeps our schools open, our teachers teaching and our students learning."

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stillwell, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said they were reviewing the ruling.

Because no issues involving the U.S. Constitution were raised, there's no appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the lawsuit, attorneys representing four school districts and parents alleged that Kansas reneged on promises made in 2006 to provide a certain level of funding the Kansas' public schools, namely that the failure to provide money for classroom instruction has harmed the state's education system — including programs aimed at helping poor and minority students.

In recent years, school districts have trimmed their staffs, cut after-school programs and raised fees for parents. Classrooms became more crowded.

State attorneys had said legislators did the best they could to maintain education spending among the reduced available revenues during the recession, pointing to efforts to raise the state sales tax rate in 2010 and the reliance on federal stimulus funding to keep spending stable.

All states have language in their constitutions for providing public school funding. But Kansas' courts in the past have been strong and specific in spelling out how the state must carry out that responsibility, and education advocates wondered earlier this year whether the push in Kansas to base funding on costs — not political considerations — would continue, perhaps emboldening parents and educators in other states.

Brownback's personal income tax cuts will be worth nearly $3.9 billion over the next five years, and he has claimed that Kansas is leading a low-tax, small-government "American renaissance." Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature suggested before they convened in January that they might resist an order for more spending.

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