Education

District Court panel: School funding inadequate under Kansas Constitution

A three-judge court panel has ruled that the funding of Kansas schools is inadequate under the state constitution.
A three-judge court panel has ruled that the funding of Kansas schools is inadequate under the state constitution. File photo

The funding of Kansas schools is inadequate under the state constitution, a three-judge school finance panel ruled Tuesday.

It falls short of the “Rose standards” – outlined in a Kentucky case and adopted by courts across the country – that say students should get an adequate opportunity to learn language skills, social studies, health and other subjects so they can grow up to function in and contribute to society, the judges said.

“We find the Kansas public education financing system – through structure and implementation – is not presently reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the Rose factors,” the Shawnee County District Court panel concluded in Gannon v. Kansas. “It is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence presented or proffered to us.”

The decision could ultimately require the addition of hundreds of millions of dollars in school funding, even as lawmakers face a $648 million budget deficit for next year. Educators and Democrats applauded the ruling, while Republicans called it politically motivated and said they would prefer to rewrite the school finance law.

The judges wrote of the need for a “brightline” amount of school funding but did not specify how much to add to base state aid per pupil to reach it.

They did offer the Legislature some possible fixes, said John Robb, the attorney for Schools for Fair Funding, which represents the Wichita school district and others that sued the state.

The state could increase base state aid per pupil to $4,654 from its current level of $3,852 and increase weightings – money districts receive based on specific needs such as a high number of special-education students – in order to meet the constitutional requirement. Or it could leave the weightings untouched and raise base aid to $4,980.

These fixes would cost between $548 million and $771 million a year, Robb said. “I think they’re just telling the Legislature that if you do this, the problem will go away.”

The ruling is certain to be appealed.

“We are disappointed by today’s ruling by the panel, which in areas seems in tension with the Kansas Supreme Court’s guidance,” Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a short statement Tuesday afternoon.

Lynn Rogers, vice president of the Wichita school board, called the decision great news for Wichita students and the city in general because of the effect that quality schools have on a local economy and its property values.

He said the decision upholds the principle that “it doesn’t matter what the ZIP code is, all kids require a quality education.”

Rogers also said he is hopeful legislators will respect the courts and “don’t feel the need to punish local school boards” for suing over funding. “I sense that that could happen in some cases,” he said.

Local option budget

Several Republican leaders suggested that Tuesday’s ruling didn’t fully align with the Kansas Supreme Court’s March decision, which sent the issue of adequate funding back to the district court for further review.

“The higher court directed the three-judge panel to look at all sources of funding, and this decision seemed to attack local control or dismiss it,” said Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, the newly appointed chairman of the the House Appropriations Committee.

The judges ruled the Legislature can’t use locally generated property tax funds known as the local option budget to prop up school districts’ base budgets.

Although some districts are using local option budget money to backfill the cost of basic education, it was intended to pay for extras beyond constitutionally required funding – “a local choice to use local funds to provide the most optimum education its taxpayers were willing to voluntarily support,” the ruling said.

The three judges expressly rejected a state law passed by the Legislature to try to force courts to recognize local option budget money as part of the constitutional test of whether the Legislature provides suitable funding for education. Doing that would make the constitutional guarantee of an adequate education “a function of fortuity and local largess rather than one of enforceable constitutional substance,” the judges said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, accused the court panel of assuming “a very political and antagonistic posture in this ruling.”

Mark Desetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said the ruling affirms what the union and school districts have said all along: There’s not enough money because of tax cuts and spending decisions made by the governor and Legislature, and that can’t be fixed by using local option budget funds to offset state cuts.

“All kids need the same opportunity,” he said. “The more you rely on local funding that is tightly tied to property values, the more difficult that becomes.”

‘Fiscal dilemma’

An order for more school funding poses a challenge as the state grapples with a budget deficit, lawmakers said.

“I can say it will be difficult to find additional monies,” said Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

The court decision notes that the state faces a “self-imposed fiscal dilemma ... both with or without this Opinion.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, a public school teacher and a 39-year veteran of the Legislature, said the state’s budget hole “is not an excuse for the governor and the Legislature to avoid their constitutional obligation.”

Gov. Sam Brownback issued a statement saying he wants to rewrite the school finance formula rather than plug more money into the existing one.

“I continue to believe that restructuring the school funding formula and implementing education policy reforms is critical not only to getting more money into our classrooms but also improving student achievement,” he said.

Some said they didn’t expect the court decision to have much effect on the legislative session that starts Jan. 12, given that an appeal is likely.

“It goes without saying that this will be appealed and we’ll actually wait for the Supreme Court to make its ruling before anything’s going to happen,” said Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center.

However, he also said that he was anxious to push for rewriting the school finance formula.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, said the decision “cries out that an overhaul is needed” and that the current formula is unnecessarily complicated.

Robb called talk of changing the formula a smokescreen.

“It’s just underfunded. And the courts have found that again,” Robb said. “Something like 25 judges have looked at this, and they’ve all come to the same conclusion. They can’t all be radical judges.”

Funding effects

Dave Trabert, the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Wichita, said the ruling “willfully ignores a long list of facts that disprove school districts' contentions.”

“The judges essentially dusted off their original decision that was rejected by the Supreme Court and added some new legal jargon attempting to justify their original action in arriving at what is little more than a political decision,” said Trabert, a member of a state commission on school spending and an outspoken critic of the notion that more money is required to improve student outcomes.

Apparently anticipating the argument that additional money doesn’t matter, the judges – Franklin R. Theis, Robert J. Fleming and Jack L. Burr – spent many pages highlighting evidence and testimony they had received that the level of funding has a direct effect on student achievement.

“Yes, money makes a difference,” they said, referring to evidence presented in this and past school finance cases.

The judges summarized a case study on the effects of a federal school-improvement grant on Emerson Elementary School in Kansas City, a poor school with mostly minority students that once was the worst-performing school in the state.

The federal money paid for staff retraining, additional support, longer school days and increased outreach to families, the ruling said. As a result, “Emerson, a grossly non-performing school … went from a 30% achievement test success rate to an achievement test success rate of 85%.”

Contributing: Suzanne Tobias of The Eagle

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com or Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

Key points in the ruling

▪ The Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback are not currently providing suitable funding for education as mandated by the state constitution.

▪ The three-judge panel said that can be fixed by increasing base state aid per pupil. It did not specify how much money must be added. But it suggested constitutionality could be met by increasing base state aid from the current $3,852 per student to a range of $4,654 to $4,980.

▪ The panel rejected arguments that spending does not affect student performance, saying all the evidence presented in the case indicated those are closely tied.

▪ The judges rejected the Legislature’s attempt to count local property tax, called the local option budget, as part of the funding the state must provide to ensure suitable funding.

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