School funds inadequate

As expected, a three-judge panel ruled that the state was inadequately funding K-12 education.
As expected, a three-judge panel ruled that the state was inadequately funding K-12 education.

The state’s budget problem is now much worse. And Gov. Sam Brownback and the majority of state lawmakers have no one to blame but themselves – though Kansas schoolchildren have been the ones paying the price.

As expected, a three-judge panel ruled that the state is inadequately funding K-12 education, as required by the Kansas Constitution. The panel, which reached a similar decision in 2013, wrote that current state funding “is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence presented or proffered to us.”

The panel also ruled that the state was unconstitutionally shifting the cost of education to the local level. School districts have used their local option budgets – which are supposed to pay for educational extras – to backfill the cost of a basic education.

The court did not order a specific increase in the base state aid to schools, which currently is $3,852 per pupil. But it indicated that the base aid might range from $4,654 to $4,980 per pupil – which is the inflation-adjusted funding level that lawmakers originally approved for the 2009-10 academic year.

That could mean a state funding increase ranging from about $550 million to $770 million.

Lawmakers are squawking that the state doesn’t have the money. Indeed, the state was already facing a budget shortfall of about $1 billion this fiscal year and next.

But as the judges pointed out, the state’s fiscal dilemma is “self-imposed.”

Lawmakers and Brownback had to expect that they would lose the school-funding lawsuit. After all, the state has lost the previous lawsuits, and the current lawsuit was filed after the state reneged on the funding promised when it lost the last lawsuit. They also knew that the state’s pension plan needed more funding and that Medicaid and other state costs would continue to increase.

Yet in the face of these fiscal realities and in the midst of a shaky economic recovery, they passed the largest tax cut in the state’s history. It didn’t take a math whiz to foresee a budget disaster.

The state will appeal the panel’s ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court, which will buy it a little time. Some lawmakers may also try to rewrite the school-finance formula or amend the state constitution.

But the Supreme Court eventually will rule against the state, as it has in the past.

When that happens, some lawmakers may seek to defy the court, arguing that the court can’t dictate how the Legislature spends money. Not only does such a claim lack merit, it goes against the Legislature’s own history – including last year’s legislative session – of acknowledging the court’s constitutional role in making sure education is suitably funded.

Brownback also will be hard-pressed to defy the court and the constitution, given that he ran for re-election bragging about his support for education.

In the end the state will have to pay up, and it won’t matter that reckless tax cuts left it in a budgetary bind. As the judicial panel noted, when it comes to the state meeting its constitutional obligations, “avoidance is not an option.”

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee