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Judge Directs Kan. Lawmakers To Fix Funding Flaw

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A state judge in Kansas has ruled that a provision of the state's school-finance formula that provides supplementary funding to small school districts renders the entire formula unconstitutional.

Shawnee County District Judge Marla Luckert, who issued the ruling late last month, directed state lawmakers to correct the flaw in the formula.

But Judge Luckert also upheld the constitutionality of the legislature's power to determine per-pupil spending and property-tax levies, which has been questioned by some districts.

A handful of districts with relatively high levels of property wealth plan to appeal that finding.

Formula Under Scrutiny

The foundation formula has been under almost constant judicial scrutiny since it was enacted by the legislature in 1992.

Spurred by a warning from a district judge that the existing finance system was unfair and ripe for a constitutional challenge, lawmakers approved a bill centralizing property-tax collection and school spending at the state level. (See Education Week, May 20, 1992.)

The debate over the new formula was marked by vociferous criticism from citizens' groups and threats of secession by some local governments.

Many school officials criticized the law for usurping functions that historically had been under local control. (See Education Week, June 3, 1992.)

Following Judge Luckert's ruling, lawyers for the state and for the group of at least 10 districts filed motions with the state appeals court asking for permission to challenge her opinion.

The districts argue that the formula violates provisions of the state constitution that guarantee that schools should be maintained and operated by local districts under the state's "general supervision.''

Extra Aid for Small Districts

The state, on the other hand, hopes to appeal Judge Luckert's finding that a provision of the formula that increases state funding for school districts with fewer than 1,900 students perpetuates the inequities of the previous finance formula.

In her ruling, Judge Luckert acknowledged that the legislature might have had a reasonable basis for approving the provision. But she also pointed out that school-finance experts had recommended that the formula be weighted to provide additional funding only to districts with fewer than 700 students.

The state attorney general's office hopes that a successful appeal will establish the constitutionality of the weighting provision, which would allow the legislature to decide at what level of enrollment the provision should take effect.

In a related development, Gov. Joan Finney, in her State of the State Address this month, told lawmakers that she has recommended funding in the state budget to hire experts to "document a rational basis for low-enrollment weighting.''

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