Court Says Kansas School Aid System Needs Fixing

By Julie Blair — December 10, 2003 4 min read
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A Kansas judge struck down the state’s decade-old school finance system last week, deeming it “unconstitutional” and ordering officials to overhaul it by July 1.

The current system fails to distribute money equally or provide adequate education to all students, as is required under the state and federal constitutions, wrote Shawnee County District Judge Terry L. Bullock, in a 126- page ruling on Dec. 2. The state might have to increase education spending by $1 billion, up from $2.6 billion, to finance schools appropriately, he said.

That $1 billion figure was pulled from a study commissioned by the legislature in which analysts projected a similar spending need.

Not only should the state provide a significantly bigger pot of money for K-12 education, he said, but it should bear the sole responsibility for financing schools. Currently, Washington and Hawaii are the only states that bear the full responsibility for underwriting schools, according to data gathered by Education Week.

Kansas school districts now share that burden with the state, a system fiercely defended by many Kansans who see a community’s control over spending as an important right, especially in a land of widespread farms and small towns.

Mr. Bullock wrote, however, that such a method of funding “dramatically and adversely impacts the learning and educational performance of the most vulnerable.”

Where’s the Money?

The ruling sent many in the Kansas education community reeling. The plaintiffs were no exception.

“It was a stunning decision,” said Gary W. Norris, the superintendent of the 7,400-student Salina public schools, which filed the lawsuit in 1999 along with 14 other mid-sized school districts. “We won basically on all counts.”

Patricia E. Baker, the deputy executive director and general counsel for the Kansas Association of School Boards in Topeka, called the decision the most sweeping court decision related to schools she had seen in her 24-year career. The organization agrees more money must be provided for schools, but like many lobbying groups, the KASB is taking a wait- and-see attitude on the structure of a formula until they see what lawmakers draft, Ms. Baker said.

Meanwhile, many legislators wonder how they will come up with the money to fix and pay for the system in a day and age in which the state’s economy is foundering. Earlier this year, Kansas lawmakers closed a $200 million deficit before finalizing a $7.3 billion state budget.

Others argue there is nothing wrong with the current method.

The judge’s order “equates educational performance with the spending of enormous amounts of money,” Senate President Dave Kerr said in a statement. “It ignores numerous objective measures that show Kansas students enjoying considerable success,” the Republican said.

The decision cannot be appealed until July 1, when Mr. Bullock’s order becomes permanent, per Kansas state law.

That order forces lawmakers to deal with school funding in the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January, rather than tying up the case in a higher court, Ms. Baker said.

Tax Resistance

The current system of school aid is riddled with problems, Superintendent Norris contends, because state formulas randomly provide funding to some school districts while ignoring others. In addition, wealthier communities are able to supplement state funding with local dollars, thus allowing them to provide more opportunities for students than in poorer areas.

It works like this: The state provides districts with a base budget—precisely $3,685 per child this fiscal year. Schools with low enrollments and special education and at-risk students, as well as vocational programs, receive slightly more money. In addition, school districts can add 25 percent more to their budgets by increasing property taxes—a much easier task in richer areas of the state.

As a result, a less-affluent town like Salina has significantly less money as well as larger class sizes and fewer programs than neighboring rural districts, Mr. Norris said. If you compare the funding for 20 students in Salina with an outlying community over 12 years, the latter school district grosses $300,000 more for those students over that period, he added.

The state could easily reinstate the former levy it once assessed on households to raise the money needed to equalize funding, the superintendent said.

Increasing taxes, however, has long been a controversial issue in Kansas—and even more so in an era in which the economy is flagging. In the last budget cycle, lawmakers were forced to slash state programs.

"[Legislators] I’ve talked to are not sympathetic,” said Karl Peterjohn, the executive director of the Wichita-based Kansas Taxpayers Network. “It is going to be very difficult to see a major tax bill go through because the economy is still struggling.”

Moreover, some worry about losing local control of schools.

“Clearly, I agree that the school finance formula ... has been underfunded and is inadequate to meet the constitutional standard,” said David L. Benson, the superintendent of the 19,000-student Blue Valley school district southwest of Kansas City. “But I disagree,” he added, “that education is solely and exclusively a state responsibility. That is historically not accurate in Kansas.”

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