So the state of Kansas is a school-finance scofflaw – again. Friday’s ruling was no big surprise, given how per-pupil state aid has been cut in recent years. But it will make an already challenging legislative session more so, as it revives the risk of a constitutional showdown between the state and the state courts.
The decision by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court came in a lawsuit brought against the state by 54 school districts, including Wichita. By declaring that school funding is unconstitutionally low, the judges reached the same conclusion that Kansas Supreme Court had in 2005. Then, state legislative leaders reluctantly agreed to a significant funding increase over several years. But when the recession hit, the state began abandoning that promise and cutting spending, to the point where per-pupil base aid is now lower than it was in 2005.
In response, districts across the state have closed schools and cut teachers, programs, librarians, janitors, field trips – forgoing whatever they can to try to reduce costs without hurting student achievement.
The judges directed the Legislature “to begin to effect a cure to the constitutional deficiencies” by going back to the $4,492 per-pupil base aid approved (but not provided) for fiscal 2010 – which would be a sizable jump up from the $3,780 in fiscal 2012 and the $3,838 for fiscal 2013.
The ruling underscores that the mandate in the Kansas Constitution to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state” applies in downturns as well as good times.
And it isn’t just a Kansas court that thinks K-12 schools need more money. Nearly 58 percent of those Kansans polled last year by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University said they wanted increased funding for K-12 schools, and only 8 percent wanted to see schools cut.
Yet Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration and many lawmakers have acted as if that earlier court ruling never happened, and they may try to ignore the latest decision as the state appeals it. But it would be irresponsible not to take the ruling seriously and factor the lawsuit’s likely outcome into all fiscal decisions, including efforts to close a projected $267 million budget gap for fiscal 2014 and to change or deepen the massive tax cuts the governor and Legislature approved last year.
Indeed, those tax cuts undermined claims that the state couldn’t afford to put more money into schools. As the judges wrote: “While the Legislature has said that educational funding is a priority, the passage of the tax-cut bill suggests otherwise.”
Most important for the legislative session that starts Monday, the judges barred further cuts to per-pupil spending.
Besides, Kansas’ highest court already has spoken on school funding, calling on the Legislature eight years ago to do as the constitution says.
Why would the result be any different this time?