Eagle editorial: Fix funding inequities

Address the inequities in state K-12 funding between rich and poor districts.
Address the inequities in state K-12 funding between rich and poor districts.

The Kansas Supreme Court’s long-awaited Gannon decision rivaled the school-finance formula for complexity, disappointing districts impatient for a fix and partisans itching for a fight. But Kansans can hope Gov. Sam Brownback and other state leaders will take seriously the court’s 110-page ruling and the responsibility it lays out for them to address the inequities in state K-12 funding between rich and poor districts.

For the court, that necessitates full state funding by July 1 of equalization provisions (capital outlay and supplemental local option budget aid), which would amount to about $129 million. For the Legislature and governor, that would seem to mean tapping state reserves or rethinking some of the budget decisions already made during the session’s first half – though it was troubling that Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and other GOP leaders suggested that fixing the inequities might not require any extra funding.

The ruling “did not attach a particular number to that,” Schmidt said.

In Friday’s unanimous opinion, the court described its “test for equity in K-12 public education finance” this way: “School districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.”

That part of the ruling effectively blames not only Brownback but also former Gov. Mark Parkinson as well as multiple legislatures for responding to the Great Recession by making cuts that aggravated wealth-related inequities between school districts.

“My commitment is to work with legislative leadership to address the allocation issue identified by the court. We will fix this,” Brownback said Friday – setting a welcome tone in sharp contrast to the defiant comments about the court in his State of the State address.

But the biggest, most contentious and potentially most costly question about the state’s school funding – whether it’s adequate – remains unanswered for now. The court asked the three-judge panel that heard the case in 2012 to take another look at that issue, which means the Gannon case is far from over.

That defers the remedy sought by WSU’s USD 259 and the other suing districts, which have closed schools, dropped programs and cut jobs in response to state per-pupil funding cuts since 2009.

But Brownback and lawmakers should not expect the final determination of adequacy by the Supreme Court, whenever that comes, to be vastly different from the court’s 2005 view that the state was falling far short of its constitutional obligation to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

That said, the high court’s move should deter legislative efforts to strip the authority of the Supreme Court to rule on school finance, to change how justices are chosen or otherwise undermine the court. Lawmakers also would be wise to hold off on bills meant to rewrite the school-finance formula, including trying to redirect money from elsewhere in the formula to address the funding inequities.

But it’s some comfort that the constitutional crisis over school funding may have been postponed.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman