School funding still inadequate and unfair, Supreme Court rules

Justices Eric Rosen, left, Marla Luckert, center and Lawton Nuss listen to arguments in the school funding case in the Kansas Supreme Court on Sept. 21, 2016, in Topeka.
Justices Eric Rosen, left, Marla Luckert, center and Lawton Nuss listen to arguments in the school funding case in the Kansas Supreme Court on Sept. 21, 2016, in Topeka. File photo

In a case with potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars at stake, the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the Legislature’s latest efforts to provide adequate and fair funding for schools still falls short.

The decision that the current system is unconstitutional will send the issue back to the Legislature with orders to add more funding to school district budgets statewide next year.

The ruling also ordered a fairer distribution of state funding, to ensure that students in poor districts have the same educational opportunities as their peers in wealthier communities.

The majority of justices supported giving the Legislature until June, but no more time than that, for a final fix on state funding of schools.

That will give lawmakers, who will reconvene in January, a full regular session to try to come up with a school-finance law that meets court requirements, negating the need for a special session.

The court is ordering that a new funding law be crafted before April 30 so there’s time for the justices to review it before the annual budget and the schools’ money runs out.

“Once legislation is enacted, the State will have to satisfactorily demonstrate to this court by June 30, 2018, that its proposed remedy brings the state's education financing system into compliance with Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution regarding the violations identified, i.e., both adequacy and equity,” the court ruling said.

“After that date we will not allow ourselves to be placed in the position of being complicit actors in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education owed to hundreds of thousands of Kansas school children.”

Three of the seven justices – Lee Johnson, Eric Rosen and Dan Biles – wrote or joined in dissents saying they want the Legislature to have to move faster.

“I would direct the State to tell us no later than the end of this year precisely how the legislature intends to fix its years-long breach of the Kansas Constitution,” Johnson wrote.

‘Never enough’

The case, called Gannon v. Kansas, has been going on since November of 2010.

On Monday, the court specifically held that a school-finance law the Legislature passed earlier this year is unconstitutional.

That new law restored much of an older school finance formula that had been abandoned about three years ago, when Gov. Sam Brownback championed block grants to give districts more flexibility in how they spend their state aid.

Four school districts – Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City – had sued the state alleging that the Legislature is underfunding schools.

School officials and lawyers hailed Monday’s decision, saying the Legislature has dragged its feet in complying with earlier court orders to fix school funding.

“Last time, we took every minute possible (to address school funding in the Legislature), and our schools deserve better,” said Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, who also is on the Wichita school board. “We cannot afford to keep making the same mistake. Every time the state delays and shortchanges kids, it costs our economy and our state much, much more in the long run.”

Neither Brownback nor Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is expected to take Brownback’s place as governor before the next legislative session, issued any substantive comments on the ruling.

School finance has been a minefield for lawmakers, torn between voters who strongly support the schools and those who firmly oppose taxes.

Few, if any, lawmakers would choose to have that thorny debate during an election year. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way in years past to make sure that didn’t happen.

But the court order appears to give them no choice.

Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, said she’s come to the conclusion there will “never, ever be enough money,” to satisfy the court.

“And unless somebody else has a better idea, we’re going to be doing this for the rest of our legislative lives, the Legislature will be fighting this,” she said.

Late Monday, Senate Republican leadership issued a statement condemning the ruling, saying they would not raise taxes to fund what they called an “unrealistic demand.”

“This ruling shows clear disrespect for the legislative process and puts the rest of state government and programs in jeopardy,” said the joint statement by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, and Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park.

Rich versus poor

Legally, the court has divided the complex case into two parts: ‘adequacy,” dealing with whether the overall amount of education funding is enough; and “equity,” dealing with whether the Legislature has fairly divided money between wealthy and poor districts.

The court ruled the Legislature failed on both counts.

On adequacy, the court said the state hasn’t proven it’s providing enough money to fulfill the so-called “Rose standards,” a set of guidelines stemming from a 1989 Kentucky case that established what schools must provide to meet students’ minimum educational needs.

The court also held that the Legislature failed to show equity in funding, by allowing expanded use of so-called Local Option Budgets, which allows residents of wealthier school districts to tax themselves to provide educational extras.

LOBs are popular in Johnson County and some other wealthy suburbs – and are generally considered to be crucial to winning enough lawmakers’ votes to pass a school-finance plan in the Legislature.

The underlying issue is that in wealthy suburbs, minor increases in property tax rates can generate huge amounts of money because of high populations and property values. It’s nearly impossible for rural or property-poor districts to raise a significant amount of money that way.

The state has provided some funding to poor districts in an effort to offset that advantage, but the court ruled it’s not enough.

“Under the facts of this case, the State has not met its burden of establishing that (all) school districts have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort,” the ruling said.

Lawmakers in June passed a package of income tax increases to generate $1.2 billion in revenue over two years. Under the new school funding formula, Kansas is spending an extra $485 million on schools during that same two-year period. The rest of the tax increases are covering other state costs and helping to build a positive budget ending balance.

Earlier this summer, the court ruled it would allow the state’s new funding law to go into effect while justices deliberated, enabling schools to prepare for the beginning of classes.

School finance has been a highly controversial issue in the state for 20 years or more, repeatedly ping-ponging back and forth to the courts and influencing state politics.

Contributing: Hunter Woodall of the Kansas City Star

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

Related stories from Wichita Eagle