Kansas and Washington Lumber Toward School Funding Fixes

By Daarel Burnette II — April 24, 2017 3 min read
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Years of threats from state supreme courts in Kansas and Washington have bought those states’ perennial school funding battles to a head this year, and legislatures in both states have considered special sessions to get the justices off their backs.

State courts have had an increasingly difficult time in recent years forcing legislatures to increase funding for school districts.

“What would they do if the legislature says no? You can’t jail legislators, because they have legislative immunity,” Richard E. Levy, a legal scholar at the University of Kansas who studies constitutional law, told me last year for a story I wrote on such scenarios playing themselves out across the country.

Washington’s supreme court in 2012 ruled the state’s funding formula unconstitutional for relying too heavily on local tax dollars to pay for public schools. The legislature responded by increasing funding for all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, and transportation. But they have yet to come up with a way to boost teacher salaries, estimated to cost the state $3.5 billion every two years.

After a lot of huffing and puffing, but no action, the supreme court last year began fining the legislature $100,000 a day for every day the lawmakers were in session and failed to come up with a solution. That bill has climbed to more than $40 million now, and the court said in October last year that if the legislature doesn’t come up with a solution the court would ramp up sanctions, as suggested by outgoing state Superintendent Randy Dorn.

Under Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders, the state’s legislature went into special session this week to come up with a solution.

“Both sides are going to have to move fairly dramatically in order to reach an agreement here,” Inslee said, according to the Associated Press. “I’m doing everything I can humanly imagine to do—you know, short of waterboarding—to get these folks to negotiate.”

The House, controlled by Democrats, has passed a bill that would raise several taxes across the state, including on capital gains and on high-earning businesses. It would raise more than $3 billion in revenue over the next two years.

The state’s Senate, controlled by Republicans, has proposed creating a new statewide property tax and eliminating local school district property taxes for one year. In 2020, local districts could start raising local property taxes again, but at more modest levels. That plan would raise $1.5 billion over the next two years.

Kansas’ problems are a little more complicated. Because the state has operated on a block grant funding formula that’s set to expire this year, legislators must come up with an entirely new funding formula.

That state’s supreme court said earlier this year that the funding formula is inadequate, but acknowledged that how the legislature distributes any new funding matters as much as the amount they distribute.

That set off a debate over how the state wants to bring more than a quarter of Kansas’ students up to basic learning standards. The state’s superintendents want more than $779 million in new spending on, among other things, teacher pay, counselors, and preschool.

The state’s conservative legislators want to ramp up the state’s accountability system, provide vouchers to students “trapped” at underperforming schools, and more tightly control district spending. They propose adding just $75 million to state education spending, a number plaintiffs’ lawyers in the Gannon v. Kansas decision say will not satisy the court.

Last year, the Kansas high court threatened to shut down the entire school system unless the legislature came up with a more “equitable” funding formula. The legislature, at the last minute reshuffled money between its districts, and the court backed off.

Several conservative organizations in the state attempted to recall those justices during last November’s election, but that effort failed, a clear signal to legislators, school funding advocates said, that Kansans want more money for the state’s schools.

Meanwhile, after Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012 and 2013 cut the state’s income taxes, the state now faces budget shortfalls totaling $889 million through June 2019, according to the Associated Press.

The House and Senate ways and means committee plan to meet this week to discuss ways to close that shortfall and come up with a way to spend more on the state’s public schools.

The legislature comes back from its recess on May 1. Some watchers say a special session is likely.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.