Budget & Finance

Kansas Launching Into Special Session to Avoid School-Aid Shutoff

By Daarel Burnette II — June 23, 2016 2 min read
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Kansas lawmakers will go into what’s expected to be a grueling and combative special session Thursday to figure out how to address a state supreme court order to equalize the state’s school funding formula. Failing to do so by June 30 would result in the court shutting off all state aid, potentially forcing the closing of the state’s school system.

In May, the Kansas’ Supreme Court said the state’s $4 billion in education spending favors wealthy districts over poor ones, effectively violating the state’s constitution. The funding formula leaves poor districts around $38 million short, the court determined. Poor districts usually make up for that money by increasing their local property taxes.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has said since the ruling that he now supports providing $38 million to poor districts. But he hasn’t specified how he would manage to find that money in a very tight budget. Revenue has fallen short for the past several months after Brownback made a series of income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013.

The state’s Democrats, who are in the minority in the legislature, have proposed pulling money from the state’s job creation, welfare funds and an emergency school aid fund. They also have proposed closing a tax loophole for private school vouchers.

Several Republicans have proposed pouring $50 million into the school funding formula to prevent wealthy suburban districts, namely politically powerful Johnson County schools, from losing money amid a funding formula redistribution. This is essentially a “hold harmless” provision, and the court has previously frowned on this sort of move, something the lawyers of the four districts that originally sued have repeatedly pointed out in recent days.

Republican Derek Schmidt, the state’s attorney general, last week asked the court in an amicus brief to remove its threat to shut down schools if the legislature doesn’t act in time. Putting the state’s students in the middle of a political fight was unnecessary, he argued.

The plaintiff’s lawyers in the Gannon v. Kansas case said in response that threatening to close schools is the only way to get the lawmakers to act. Several of the legislators are up for election this fall.

A handful of Republicans want to alter the language in the state’s constitution to ban the state supreme court from shutting down schools. A separate movement is afoot to remove the justices from the bench this fall.

To get a sense of how desperate the state’s poor districts are and how lopsided its funding formula is, check out this telling profile by the Joplin Globe of the Galena school district, arguably the poorest district in the state (and the home of a devastating 2011 tornado). Because of the county’s low property values, residents are taxed more than twice as much as residents in the state’s wealthiest districts, yet the district spends just a third as much on students.

From the story:

[Superintendent Brian] Smith said he has put off buying textbooks and bought a 15-year-old school bus at auction for $6,000 to save money. Amanda Haney, a fourth-grade teacher at Liberty Elementary for 10 years, said she has seen the amount of money the district allocates to her classroom for supplies drop from $1,500 to $300. [Fourth Grade Teacher Amanda] Haney, who also has two daughters who attend district schools, said she buys supplies such as paper, scissors and glue with her own money because many of the students in her classroom start the school year without supplies. Of the school’s 169 students, 128 qualified for free or reduced-price lunches last year. “I don’t think we do enough for the kids,” Haney said. “They need more.”

The county’s senator, Republican Jake LaTurner, a graduate of the district, told the paper that he feels the supreme court is going too far and the students in the district are receiving a quality education.

Later this year, the court is expected to rule on the adequacy portion of the Gannon case. A ruling in the plaintiff’s favor could cost the state more than $400 million, according to the plaintiff’s lawyers.

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