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Kansas High Court Upholds State's School-Finance System

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The Kansas Supreme Court has given state lawmakers its stamp of approval for their new school-finance system, ruling unanimously that all parts of the 1992 law pass constitutional muster.

Leading state legislators and Governor-elect Bill Graves said that the decision will not squelch their interest in revisiting the law during next year's legislative session. But they agreed that the court's action takes some pressure off them to act either immediately or drastically.

Mr. Graves said he will take his time in reviewing the law, digesting the 81-page opinion handed down Dec. 2, and considering possible revisions. That leisurely tone contrasts sharply with his campaign speeches, in which he called fixing the formula one of his top priorities.

Indeed, observers said the court gave lawmakers and state executives a good deal of breathing room.

"The act is within all asserted constitutional limitations," the court found. It agreed with a lower-court judge who had upheld most of the law, and it reversed her decision to invalidate a program that offers extra funding to districts with fewer than 1,900 students.

Even the critics of the funding program for low-enrollment districts agreed that the legislature had done a good job in overhauling the school-finance system in 1992. The legislature moved to a statewide property tax that uses some of the local proceeds of wealthy districts to help boost the budgets of the state's poorest schools. Even in the Newton district, which was a party to the latest challenge, school funding rose from about $3,200 per student before 1992 to $3,950 this year.

Favoring Small Schools

"The law is a 1,000 percent improvement, but my reservations continue to be that the low-enrollment-weighting factor could be better designed," said David C. Thompson, a school-finance expert at Kansas State University in Manhattan. "But even with that, this is a fairly pioneering effort."

Critics argued that when the state rewrote the finance law, it used the low-enrollment program as a way to make up for funding that had previously been steered to small school districts.

As a result, the plaintiffs contended, the weighting program does not rationally meet any specific needs of small districts but simply keeps them from losing money they had collected under the old system.

"They were able to back into the same amount of money without any rational basis for it," Mr. Thompson said. "The law doesn't ask whether the districts are small and necessary or whether they are just small."

In Kansas, a 1,900-student school district might not even be considered small. About 85 percent of the state's 304 school districts qualify for money from the $220 million low-enrollment fund.

For the rest of the districts, the program is creating noticeable disparities, said Willis Heck, the superintendent of the Newton schools.

His 3,600-student district, for example, cannot offer teacher salaries as high as smaller nearby districts that are getting the low-enrollment aid.

In addition, smaller districts can hire more teacher aides, buy more computers, and provide more extensive staff-training programs, Mr. Heck said.

But the court ruling essentially directs districts like Newton to take their complaints to the legislature, which is what Mr. Heck and other said they intend to do.

Lawmakers, in turn, said they are ready to reconsider parts of the law and are relieved that the question is out of the hands of the courts.

State Sen. Dave Kerr, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said that school finance will remain "a significant issue" in the 1995 legislative session, but that education funding "will not be as dominant a topic as we expected it to be."

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