Expect wailing and gnashing of teeth if the Kansas Supreme Court orders the state to increase funding to K-12 public schools – perhaps by more than $500 million. But the blame for such a ruling should fall squarely on Gov. Sam Brownback and state lawmakers, who put cutting taxes before adequately funding schools.
The court will hear arguments Wednesday on whether the Legislature is meeting its constitutional obligation to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” Based on past decisions, the state likely will lose.
The current lawsuit is essentially a repeat of a school-funding case the state lost more than a decade ago. In response to that ruling, the Legislature and then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius increased funding by nearly $300 million in 2005 and then promised in 2006 to phase in about $500 million in additional funding over three years.
But then the recession hit, and then-Gov. Mark Parkinson sharply cut state education funding during the third year of the increase, temporarily replacing it with federal stimulus funding.
Rather than restore the promised funding as the economy improved, Brownback cut taxes, which left the state short of money. He and the Legislature then revoked the school funding formula and replaced it with block grants that essentially froze school funding at the lowered level.
Though total education funding increased while Brownback has been in office, most of that increase has gone to the pension system or was ordered by the court to fix funding inequities. Net operating aid to schools increased only 0.67 percent during the past six years, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Funding has not kept up with inflation during that time (8.9 percent) or accounted for increases in student enrollment. Nor has funding returned to the level promised in the previous court case.
As a result, it is difficult to fathom the Supreme Court ruling in the state’s favor.
A three-judge panel of the Shawnee County District Court already has ruled twice that the state is inadequately funding schools. Its cost estimate for restoring suitable funding is about $800 million.
Such an order would put the state in a fiscal bind. It has already burned through its ending balance reserves trying to cover the revenue lost from the tax cuts. And it continues to miss its monthly tax collection estimates.
But this is primarily a self-inflicted fiscal problem and is not the fault of the court or the state’s schoolchildren.
Brownback and GOP legislators knew the state was not honoring the school-funding agreement, yet they cut taxes anyway. If the court rules against the state again, they have only themselves to blame.