Courts are supposed to be guided by the law and the facts, not the clock. But Kansans can hope their state Supreme Court decides as soon as possible after Tuesday’s hearing whether the Legislature has done enough to restore equity to K-12 school funding under its block-grant plan and to avoid a threatened school shutdown.
Just the slim chance of such a court-ordered closure June 30 is complicating budgeting, contract negotiations, hiring and other decision making statewide.
If the court finds fault with the level or distribution of funding, it will sow more uncertainty as it necessitates more days of lawmaking – either connected with the ceremonial sine die June 1 or in a special session later. The thought is cringe-worthy, given the Legislature’s recent dysfunction.
But if the court rules against the state – again – the blame will belong not to the justices but to the Legislature, which calculated that the February ruling could be answered by moving money around. True, there is a logic to the strategy: To determine local option budget assistance, the law used the median property value per student – a method the court already has accepted when used to equalize capital outlay funding.
But it’s hard to imagine how recalculated and shuffled funding could pass the court’s test for constitutionality, given the estimates after the court ruled in February that it would take $38 million to $50 million more to make funding equitable among districts.
Wichita’s USD 259, for example, would receive an added $10 million in equalization aid if the Legislature had used the old school-finance formula as its guide. Under the bill signed last month, the district will see no added equalization money, and is trying to cut $12 million more of a total $23 million to cover increased costs amid lagging state funding under the block-grant plan.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, argued that “this is about how you divide money, not how much you put in,” and questions whether the court would close schools over “less than 1 percent of the K-12 budget.” It might not. Such an extreme measure would be easier to imagine at the next phase of the districts’ lawsuit, which involves whether state funding for K-12 schools is adequate statewide.
In any case, a schools shutdown cannot be allowed to happen. And while lawmakers await the court’s equity decision, they should note that the Kansas Constitution’s wording about school finance makes no exceptions for budget crises, self-inflicted or otherwise.