Archive for Thursday, February 11, 2016

Kansas Supreme Court strikes down block grant school funding law

February 11, 2016

The Kansas Supreme Court struck down a stopgap law for funding the state's public schools on Thursday, saying it left poor districts $54 million short.

The justices unanimously ruled that the Republican-backed law doesn't comply with the Kansas Constitution and gave lawmakers until the end of June to write a new law. The high court has yet to decide on the larger question of whether Kansas must boost its education spending by at least $548 million a year.

Lawmakers approved the 2015 law as temporary fix to replace a per-student formula for distributing more than $4 billion a year to school in favor of stable "block grants." The law was meant to give lawmakers time to devise another system for distributing more $4 billion a year in aid to its 286 public school districts.

But the Supreme Court ruled that the temporary law, which was set to expire in July 2017, violates the Kansas Constitution's requirement that the state finance a suitable education for every student.

"Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30," the court said in its unsigned opinion.

Legislators approved a $140 million increase in education funding in 2014, to comply with a Supreme Court mandate to boost aid to poor districts. But the estimated cost of that aid for the 2014-15 school year skyrocketed by $54 million under the state's previous per-student formula for distributing funding.

Republican legislators last year junked the old formula, moving to "block grants" that largely froze total aid outside of contributions to teacher pensions, and denied districts the extra $54 million after they'd built their budgets. In response, districts statewide cut programs, shed jobs and ended the 2014-15 school year early, blaming the moves on the school funding law.

Thursday's ruling came in a lawsuit that four districts have been pursuing since 2010. The four districts suing the state — Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City — argued that poor districts and disadvantaged and minority students were hurt most. They also argue that the state isn't spending enough money to meet its obligations under the Kansas Constitution.

A three-judge court panel ruled last year that the state needed to boost its total aid by at least $548 million a year, and the Supreme Court plans to review that question later this year — which could prompt a second, far more costly decision.

The state has struggled to balance its budget since legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013, at Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. He contends growth spurred by the reductions has offset slumps in agriculture, aircraft manufacturing and energy production, but his critics argue that his fiscal experiment has failed.

Brownback has repeatedly noted that the state's total aid continues to set annual records, and many GOP legislators believe they've been generous. They also argue that the new block grant law provides stability both for the state and the districts.

They saw the old, per-pupil formula as too complicated and said it diverted too much aid from classrooms. But many educators contend the new block grant law is unfair because it doesn't automatically increase a district's aid if it has more students, or a greater percentage of them have special needs.

Local districts respond

The Shawnee Mission and De Soto school districts both say it will take time before they can form a plan for the future given Thursday's ruling.

Alvie Cater, spokesman for the De Soto School District, said the district would continue to move forward and do its best for students, but school are at the mercy of the legislature now. He said the district is operating with the understanding that if the legislature does not act by the end of June, schools could be shut down.

"At this time, we have no choice but to wait and see the options and the course of action selected by the legislature to come up with a new funding plan," he said. "This will hamper our efforts in preparing our budget for the next fiscal year. In the meantime, we will rise above and continue to serve students first."

He said the district will do its best to prepare for the worst.

"Though we're not sure how to prepare for shutting down," he said.

Shawnee Mission School District said it is reviewing the ruling and will reserve comment until a thorough understanding of the ruling has been determined.

"As officials evaluate implications regarding the opinion, we will continue to advocate for a funding solution that is financially sustainable, promotes greater local funding flexibility, and ensures educational excellence for all students in

Kansas," the district said in a media release.

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