Politics & Government

Kansas Supreme Court finds inequities in school funding, sends case back to trial court

FILE  Maize Middle School South sixth-grade students read during class.
FILE Maize Middle School South sixth-grade students read during class. The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas Supreme Court found some unfairness – but not necessarily too few dollars – in the state’s funding of schools and sent a mammoth school-finance case back to a lower court for further action.

The court found disparities between districts to be unconstitutional and set a July 1 deadline for lawmakers to address that. But it stopped short of saying the state is putting too few dollars in the pot, leaving that issue for another day.

Both school advocates and Republican lawmakers declared partial victory in the wake of the ruling in the lawsuit brought by the Wichita school district and others against the state. But they offered strikingly different interpretations of the decision.

The long-awaited decision affirmed some findings of a three-judge Shawnee County District Court panel, notably inequities in funding. It set aside the trial court’s finding that funding for schools was inadequate, saying that court had incorrectly based its findings only on cost studies.

The lower court had called for lawmakers to raise the base per-pupil state aid from $3,838 to $4,492, at a cost of about $437 million statewide.

The court found that dollars alone did not determine whether funding is adequate, and that outcomes needed to be taken into account. Gov. Sam Brownback praised that aspect of the decision.

The unanimous 110-page decision sends the case back to the lower court for further action on equity. The justices noted that could also open the way to a fuller examination of the overall system of school finance. They directed the panel to re-evaluate whether schools are adequately funded after inequities in funding are addressed.

Adequacy refers to the overall amount of funding provided to schools. Equity refers to how that money is divided among the districts to ensure all students have access to relatively equal educational opportunity.

The justices made clear that these are two distinct concepts but also stated that “curing of the equity infirmities may influence the (district court) panel’s assessment of the adequacy of the overall education funding system.”

The decision outlines steps the Legislature could take to correct inequities in capital building funding and in the local-option budget – local property taxes used to provide funding beyond the base funding that comes from the state.

The Rev. Jeff Gannon, a Wichita father who is the namesake of the lawsuit, called Friday’s ruling a partial victory but said the court’s decision not to order further increases in funding is “an abdication rooted in a fear of outright anarchy.”

Threats of a constitutional crisis that would pit the branches of government against one another resulted in “a cowering” by the court. “And that saddens me,” Gannon said.

“I’m grateful for what took place this morning, but I confess to you that I am fearful,” he said. “It is a fear that is rooted in hope. But I fear that at the end of this, we’ll largely be back to where we began.”

‘Great day for Kansas kids’

John Robb, attorney for the school districts, saw the ruling as a victory because the court rejected the state’s arguments that the issues in the case were political ones, to be determined by the Legislature and governor.

“All in all, you can say it’s a great day for Kansas kids,” Robb said.

“I think (the ruling ) gives it to the Legislature in two bites: First, they have to deal with capital outlay and LOB this year. And then, probably next year, they have to deal with the base or the adequacy part of it,” he said.

Robb and Democratic leaders interpreted the court instruction to address inequalities in capital outlay and local option budget funding as meaning an additional $129 million for Kansas schools. Some Democrats said that could force the governor to revisit income tax cuts.

But Republican lawmakers had a radically different interpretation. Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, flanked by legislative leaders, contended at an afternoon news conference that the ruling does not compel the state to pay any specific dollar amount to address the inequality issue.

“The court is very clear that it is stating no specific amount that needs to be spent. In fact, it’s very clear that they’re not even requiring previous funding levels to be met,” Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said.

King was part of the team of attorneys that represented the state in the earlier Montoy case, which also tackled the issue of adequate school funding.

President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who has previously questioned the court’s authority to rule on school funding, called the decision fair.

“There will be a lot of different ways to solve it, different weightings that can be moved around,” she said. “We can put more money in the formula. I’m sure we will. But we have a lot of different options.”

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, objected to a July 1 deadline so late in the session, which is slated to end in May.

“The courts take as long as they want to make their rulings, and they put deadlines on us? We have our structure of deadlines already built in,” Huebert said. “I think that’s presumptuous.”

Wagle was bit more optimistic. “We work well under deadlines,” she said.

But neither she, nor House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, offered a specific plan. Merrick said it was too soon after the ruling for that.

School funding formula

Some Republican legislators have said the state needs to revise its school funding formula. Brownback endorsed this view as a possible solution.

“This is a formula that hasn’t been overhauled in 20 years. It’s been tinkered with a lot, and that tinkering is probably what’s led to its questions of equity,” the governor said.

But the Kansas National Education Association contended that the state’s formula isn’t broken. “We don’t know that the formula doesn’t work, because we’ve never funded it appropriately. ‘Let’s let it work. Let’s restore equity,’ is what the court’s saying,” said Mark Desetti, KNEA’s director of government relations.

If the Legislature doesn’t act, the Supreme Court directed the district panel to issue injunctions to correct the equity flaws itself.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, a public high school teacher, said the state has enough in its reserves to cover an additional $129 million for the next fiscal year.

But Hensley said that the Legislature will need to revisit deep income tax cuts made in the last two years at Brownback’s urging in order to cover education costs in the future.

“How can we adequately and fairly fund K-12 education if our general fund gets depleted to the point that we don’t have any money?” he asked.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, was hesitant to say whether he would support a repeal of income tax cuts or offer a specific plan of how to solve the funding disparities between districts.

Republican leaders refused to even entertain the idea that income tax cuts might need to be repealed.

“We need this tax structure, so we can grow,” Brownback said. “We need to grow if we’re going to address these equity arguments.” Brownback said the state has adequate revenues to address its education funding.

But he said the court decision and the questions surrounding school finance could affect some of his budget proposals, including his passion project to make kindergarten all-day statewide.

“It probably depends on the April revenue estimates,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, agreed that every budget item has a question mark next to it at this point and that the remainder of the session would be dominated by dealing with the court ruling.

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