TOPEKA — Kansas’ block-grant funding of public education is inequitable and unconstitutional, a three-judge school finance court ruled Friday.
In an 87-page ruling, the panel ordered that the state fix the problem by reinstating parts of the school-finance formula repealed by the block-grant bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Sam Brownback earlier this year.
The court ruled that the bill violates the state constitution “both in regard to its adequacy of funding and in its change of, and in its embedding of, inequities in the provision of capital outlay state aid and supplemental general state aid.”
The court disputed Brownback’s claim that the state is providing more aid to schools under the block grant plan than it did before.
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“House Substitute for Senate Bill 7, though promoted as a change and an improvement in K-12 funding, really encompasses … what is no more than a freeze on USD operational funding for two years,” the court wrote.
It went on to say that any purported increase comes “by way of adding in, under the guise of operational funds, Kansas Public Employees Retirement System employer contributions … to the ‘block’ of funds provided.”
The court specifically ordered remedies to two areas of school finance: capital outlay, which pays for construction and improvement of schools, and local option budgets, or LOB, which is local property tax money that goes to schools.
The state has traditionally provided “equalization” money to boost that funding in poorer school districts, so that children there will have roughly the same educational opportunities as children in property-rich communities.
“We believe that the legislature would not have intended for a capital outlay levy … to be repealed if these 2015 legislative enactments were to be found unconstitutional,” the court ruling said. “Thus the effect of our ‘cure’ here is to reinstate (capital outlay laws) as these statutes existed prior to January 1, 2015.”
The court also struck down language setting percentages of LOB aid.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed a notice of appeal to the state Supreme Court on Friday.
If the lower court’s ruling is upheld, lawmakers said, it could force a special legislative session to make court-ordered fixes.
“We don’t have any sort of school finance formula in place,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “When the block grants passed, the school finance formula was repealed and so we have nothing in place that would appropriate money for school districts, the way I understand it.”
However, he said he was pleased that the court overturned the block-grant funding.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, issued a two-sentence statement through her office staff.
“It appears Washington, D.C. isn’t the only place courts have decided to draft their own laws and ignore the will of the people,” her statement said. “Topeka judges aren’t legislators, and it’s time they stopped auditioning for the role in their rulings. I’m hopeful our Supreme Court justices will show more restraint.”
The three-judge panel meets in Topeka, but only one of the judges, Franklin Theis, is actually assigned to Topeka district court. Judge Robert Fleming is assigned to the 11th District court in the southeast corner of the state. Jack Burr, is a retired judge from Sherman County in far northwest Kansas.
Impact on Wichita schools
John Robb, the attorney for Schools for Fair Funding, which represents the Wichita school district and others that sued the state, said the decision means “the court is not going to let the Legislature play hide-and-seek with the school finance formula or game the formula.
“It’s not going to allow them to destroy the school finance formula without putting something in its place that rationally benefits kids,” he said.
The immediate infusion of funding to Kansas schools this year should be about $54 million – the difference in local option budget and capital outlay equalization funding between the 2014 formula and the block grant plan — Robb said.
“The order is going to require them to pay the equalization dollars they promised they’d pay last year,” Robb said. “The courts are going to hold the Legislature accountable, as they should.”
Officials with the Wichita school district were not available for comment Friday. The district could get an additional $6 million in state aid this year if lawmakers follow the court’s direction.
Robb said the case has been sent to the state Supreme Court before and that he thought there was “a substantial chance that the Supreme Court’s going to let this ruling stay.”
The state’s high court ruled in March 2014 that school funding was inequitable but sent the mammoth case – including the decision on the adequacy of funding – back to the lower court for further action. In December, the District Court panel ruled that school funding was inadequate under the state constitution.
Friday’s ruling also reinstitutes a portion of the school finance formula that provides additional funding to districts based on their number of students. Wichita district officials are projecting about 230 more students next school year but no increase in per-pupil funding.
Justin Henry, superintendent of Goddard schools and president of Schools for Fair Funding, said his district expects an additional $600,000 in equity aid from the state. But the more important part of Friday’s ruling, he said, is the court’s insistence that school funding be equitable and that high-need students require additional resources.
“We’ve had an increase in enrollment for 30 consecutive years. So how do you … lock in an amount and say, ‘Well, that was good three years ago, so that should be OK’?” Henry said.
“Just having some sort of system that we know we can depend on, and have it be stable and predictable – that’s what students need. Without that, it’s somewhat chaos.”
Accusations of judicial activism
Brownback and Republican legislative leaders said the ruling was an example of judicial activism.
“The three-judge panel has once again violated its Constitutional authority with this ruling. It has now taken upon itself the powers specifically and clearly assigned to the legislative and executive branches of government,” Brownback said in a statement.
Republicans “are committed to providing stable and secure funding, which is why education funding, accounting for over 50 percent of the state budget, was left completely untouched during the budget process at a time when almost every other area of the budget underwent cuts,” said a joint statement issued by House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, Speaker pro tem Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, and Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg.
“After more than two decades of constant litigation and uncertainty for local school districts, the legislature acted to provide certainty through the block-grant program, which removed almost all restrictions on how local districts spend their dollars,” Vickrey added.
“Today, the court denies the obvious fact that the legislative branch can decide to change the way in which funding for a state institution occurs by asserting that the only real way for the legislature to fund schools is through the old formula.”
Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, called the ruling “little more than a political opinion.”
“The three-judge panel … ignored the State Supreme Court’s order that adequacy is to be determined on whether outcomes – as defined by the Rose capacities – are being met,” he said. “School districts openly admit that they do not know how to define or measure the Rose capacities, and if they cannot do so, they have no legal basis for claiming they lack adequate funding to meet those capacities.”
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.