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Published in Print: May 19, 2004, as Kansas Judge Orders State To Shut Schools

Kansas Judge Orders State To Shut Schools

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A Kansas judge has ordered the state to shut down its schools at the end of this school year rather than continue its unconstitutional system for financing them.

"Although this action may delay our children’s education slightly, ... it will end the inadequate and inequitable education being provided now and the disparate damage presently being done to the most vulnerable of our children," state District Court Judge Terry L. Bullock wrote in a May 11 opinion.

Though the judge ordered the state to stop funding schools after June 30, state officials are assuring districts that funds are likely to flow this summer. The ruling follows a legislative session marked by tumultuous debate—but no progress—in responding to the judge’s December ruling that the state’s school aid is unconstitutional.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius

The state’s attorney general, Phill Kline, has already appealed Judge Bullock’s order, and he expects the state supreme court to halt the ruling while it considers the case.

"I can’t image the supreme court would shut down the schools while it has pending the appeal of the case," Dan Biles, the attorney for the state board of education, said in an interview last week. "That’s not how we operate."

Even if schools don’t shut down, according to one expert, the judge is putting state officials on notice that they need to address the state’s school funding system. ("Court Says Kansas School Aid System Needs Fixing," Dec. 10, 2003.)

"What Judge Bullock is trying to do, more than anything, is issue a wake-up call to the legislature that basically decided to pack their bags and go home," said Bruce Baker, an associate professor of teaching and leadership at University of Kansas in Lawrence and a witness for the school districts suing the state.

"He’s frustrated with ... their complete lack of willingness to even consider that there might be a serious problem with the way schools are funded," Mr. Baker said.

Judge Bullock’s order to fix school funding came as no surprise. In his December decision, the judge declared the financing system unconstitutional because it didn’t provide adequate funding or distribute money equitably.

But the judge’s order last week to shut down schools shocked officials. At first, several media outlets reported that the schools would close immediately, and parents started calling schools to see whether their children needed to be picked up.

Bad Blood

In his ruling, Judge Bullock said his decision to halt funding this summer was the "next logical and correct step" to void the laws that he considers unconstitutional.

His decision—and lawmakers’ reaction to it—also demonstrated the bad blood that exists between the different branches of Kansas government.

In his December decision, the judge gave the legislature the chance to fix the funding system in its 2004 session. The legislature adjourned last month without addressing the ruling.

Many legislators said they were unwilling to make major changes to the system when they believed the state’s supreme court would be the final arbiter. ("Kansas Lawmakers Tied Up Over School Aid," March 31, 2004.)

"From the outset, legislative leaders openly declared their defiance of the court and refused to meaningfully address the many constitutional violations within the present funding scheme," wrote Judge Bullock, who sits on the Shawnee County District Court in Topeka.

In response to his latest ruling, lawmakers said the judge had overstepped his power and they would await a resolution from the state supreme court.

"A single activist judge cannot choose to ignore the facts of financing schools including the fine educational results being purchased by our tax dollars," Sen. Dave Kerr, the Republican president of the Senate, said.

By contrast, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, assigned blame to lawmakers. The GOP-led legislature rejected the governor’s proposal to raise taxes to add $300 million to the K-12 budget over the next three years.

"This situation could have been avoided had the legislature done its job during the session," Ms. Sebelius said in a statement.

Waiting for Resolution

In his December ruling, Judge Bullock suggested that the state would need to add about $1 billion to its annual K-12 budget.

The state now spends $2.4 billion a year—about 54 percent of the state budget—on K- 12 schools.

Judge Bullock said that is not enough to meet the state’s constitution’s promise of a "suitable education." That clause, he said, requires Kansas to provide students with "the knowledge and skills necessary to understand and successfully participate in the world around them both as children and later as adults."

That is an expansive definition of the term and is unlikely to be embraced by the state’s highest court, according to the state attorney general.

"Although some of you may consider this a laudable policy goal, I do not believe such an interpretation of the word ‘suitable’ will withstand appeal," Mr. Kline, a Republican, wrote to the governor and lawmakers in an analysis of the judge’s May 11 decision.

The state supreme court appears ready to resolve the school finance case by the end of the year, according to Mr. Biles, the state board of education’s attorney. For example, the court has told lawyers involved in the case that a deadline extension will not be granted, he said.

The supreme court hasn’t set a timeline for dealing with the question of whether schools should be funded in the interim.

Vol. 23, Issue 37, Pages 23,26

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