Kansas school funding still inadequate, Supreme Court says

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Monday that a new school funding plan is still inadequate, but gave the Legislature another year to fix it.

"The State has not met the adequacy requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution," despite adding $522 million over the next five years, the court ruling said.

But if lawmakers add some additional money for inflation and follow through with the funding, Kansas “can bring the K-12 public education financing system into constitutional compliance," the court said.

That heads off the possibility of a school shutdown for now and gives school districts certainty about funding for the upcoming school year.

The Gannon case is a long-running battle between the Kansas Legislature, which claims it provides plenty of money for schools, and districts, which argue they don't get enough to provide a quality education.

It's a court issue because the Legislature is bound by the state constitution to provide "suitable" funding for education.

Reaction to the ruling

Wichita, the state’s largest district, projects about $19 million in the coming school year in additional state funding under the new plan.

Responding to Monday's ruling, Wichita superintendent Alicia Thompson said this year’s budget boost was “very much appreciated.” But more is needed “to lift all students to a standard of proficiency,” she said.

“We didn’t get to the point of painful budget reductions in one year, nor will we be able to restore funding overnight,” Thompson said in an e-mailed statement.

In a hastily called news conference at Jabara Airport in Wichita, Gov. Jeff Colyer said he's not sure how much money the state will need to add to make the inflation adjustments the court requires.

But he's pleased that the decision heads off a judicial shutdown of the schools and eliminates any need for what could have been a very contentious special session of the Legislature.

"Any additional funding that needs to come forward, the Legislature can do that in the normal course of business," Colyer said. "They were able to achieve that before and I think they can do that."

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, did not immediately comment after Monday’s ruling.

Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, said the ruling is practically meaningless and holds no incentive for schools to look at how they allocate money to determine what adequacy means to their individual districts.

“This whole education funding issue, it sucks the oxygen out of the entire Capitol,” Lynn said.

She said she hopes the ruling helps the push to pass a constitutional amendment that would take away the Supreme Court's authority to oversee school funding.

“I think as long as we let this go on, as long as we let the court push us around and come over and do our jobs, that it will never be enough money,” Lynn said.

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said schools shouldn’t get more money until they show they are using it effectively and efficiently.

“I think we have until June 30 of next year to pass a constitutional amendment once the people of Kansas finally put an end to this nightmare,” Whitmer said.

Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, a former Wichita school board member, said he hoped Monday’s ruling prompts the Legislature to address school funding early in the 2019 session.

“The courts continue to be patient with the Legislature, and I’m not sure we always deserve that,” Rogers said.

“It’s kind of like we keep making a low-bid offer and hope that the courts will accept it,” he said. “I hope the legislative leadership would say, ‘We’ve got to fix this right away. We’ve got to buckle down and do it.’”

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Legislature wasn't fulfilling its obligation, and that school funding has to meet two tests to satisfy the constitutional mandate:

  • First, funding has to be adequate, meaning that there's enough total money in the system for schools to provide a quality education.

  • And second, funding must be equitable, meaning that state resources are allocated to give poor children the opportunity to obtain an education of roughly similar quality to what's provided in wealthy districts. The court ruled Monday the Legislature has met its responsibility to equitably distribute funding, one of two prongs it has to meet to achieve a constitutional result.

In October, the court set a series of deadlines to correct inadequacies and inequities the justices said existed. Lawmakers were ordered to provide a school finance plan that the court could review before June 30 — this Saturday — which is the end of the state's fiscal year. The Legislature responded by giving schools an additional $522 million over the next five years.

Paying for inflation

John Robb, one of the attorneys representing the school districts, said the court found the new funding plan unconstitutional because it did not account for inflation after this year.

Attorneys for the districts argued that inflation costs schools about $97 million a year. The state's attorneys put the estimate at $50 million to $60 million a year.

"I think we're making progress. It's just not as quickly as anyone would like," Robb said.

The ruling "gives the districts more certainty than they had last week, last month, last year or the last five years," he said.

"They have a school finance formula back in place that I think they can count on. . . . The amount of money in the plan for this year is a good down payment on the system, but the Legislature must address inflation" moving forward, Robb said.

In contrast to earlier court opinions, Monday’s ruling extended an olive branch to the Legislature and complimented lawmakers on making an attempt to correct constitutional deficiencies.

While some constitutional issues remain, the opinion lets stand three current state laws governing funding through the upcoming school year.

“This action acknowledges the State's position — that the 2018 legislature's efforts and the amount of money added for the approaching school year should permit such an extension through the 2019 regular legislative session,” the ruling said. “We have confidence the legislature can again meet its constitutional duty.”

To come into long-term compliance, the Legislature will mainly have to adjust its existing funding plan for inflation, the court ruling said. Lawmakers will also have to clear up some ambiguity in the amount of state aid to be set aside for online virtual schools, the ruling said.

The proposed state funding falls substantially short of the $1.7 billion to $2 billion increase recommended by a Texas A&M expert the Legislature hired to analyze school funding and make recommendations.

Because of the wide divergence between the Legislature and its own consultant, the justices appeared mostly skeptical of the state's position when the case was argued before the court in May.

Contributing: Tim Potter of The Eagle.

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