Law & Courts

Courts Push Lawmakers to the Wall on Funding

By Daarel Burnette II — February 23, 2016 4 min read
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Again and again, state supreme courts in Washington and Kansas have deemed their states’ school funding formulas unconstitutional, in various rulings spread over a number of years.

In response, state legislatures—in the view of the impatient justices—have either dragged their feet, backpedaled, or come up with inadequate solutions.

Both courts seem to be fed up.

A ruling by Kansas’ high court earlier this month would effectively shut the entire school system down if lawmakers fail to come up with a formula the court finds equitable by June 30. The justices are expected to decide later this year if the state’s current block grant formula is adequate in terms of overall funding.

And in Washington, the state continues to pay $100,000 in fines into a special account—totaling more than $15 million so far—after the state supreme court decided last year the legislature wasn’t moving fast enough to respond to the court’s 2012 order to come up with a new formula and found the legislature in contempt of court.

As of last week, both legislatures were puzzling over ways to pump millions more dollars into their school districts’ budgets.

In Kansas, legislators met with school officials and financial analysts to discuss how to provide more money. The House passed an overall state budget that closed a $200 million budget deficit, resulting from a slash in personal income-tax rates in 2012 and 2013. But the budget doesn’t answer the supreme court’s demand that the legislature come up with an extra $54 million for the state’s poor districts.

Legislative Rumbles

Some Kansas lawmakers and state officials are making rumbles about defying what they see as a court overstepping its boundaries.

Washington’s Senate last week passed a so-called “plan for a plan” that sets a deadline of the end of the 2017 session to come up with a new funding formula. Another bill passed by the house would allow districts to raise their local taxes.

While some legislators believe the action will satisfy the court’s mandate in McCleary v. State of Washington, others described it as telling schools “the check is in the mail.”

Randy Dorn, the state’s superintendent of instruction, said the schools can’t wait another year.

“This is not just a funding problem,” he said, citing a teacher shortage in the rural parts of the state and a yawning achievement gap between students of color and white students. “It’s a civil rights issue.”

Although it’s rare, courts sometimes fine legislatures—as the high court in Washington state has done—or threaten to shut down schools over funding formulas, said Michael A. Rebell, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who tracks battles over school funding formulas.

Courts in New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have held legislatures in contempt over school funding formulas they deemed unconstitutional, said Rebell.

In 2005, the Kansas Supreme Court said it would “consider” shutting down the schools if the legislature didn’t craft a funding formula the court deemed sufficient. But the legislature called a special session over that summer and devised a formula before school began.

“This time they’re not saying they’re considering; they’re saying, ‘We’ll do it,’ ” said Rebell of the latest decision by the Kansas justices. “They said, ‘We’re not going to stand for this. Give the money to the poor districts by June 30 or we’ll pull out the atom bomb of all remedies.’ That’s surely going to get the attention from legislators.”

The most recent decision in Kansas stems from a 2010 lawsuit, Gannon v. State of Kansas, filed by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City, and Wichita districts. They contended that the funding formula is both inequitable and inadequate and violates the state constitution.

The state supreme court, in 2014, ruled in the districts’ favor on the equity part of the lawsuit. The legislature then added $140 million to the funding formula and enacted a two-year block grant formula.

Those districts sued again, arguing that the funding formula froze funds, forcing them to increase their local property taxes to provide teachers with raises.

“There are essential things our kids are doing without,” said Shelly Kiblinger, the superintendent of the Hutchinson schools. Kiblinger said the district increased class sizes, laid off administrators, and last summer raised property taxes to provide teachers their first raise in years. That cost, the high court decided this month, lies with the state, not local taxpayers.

Soon after the latest decision was handed down, some state leaders said the court had overstepped its boundaries and had attempted to interrupt the budget process.

“Kansas has among the best schools in the nation, and an activist Kansas Supreme Court is threatening to shut them down,” Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, said in a statement.

Some Kansas lawmakers said the courts were meddling in legislative affairs. And in a move that hinted to some observers that the state will defy the court’s orders, the legislature earmarked $50,000 to pay for a lawyer to represent it in future school funding cases.

In the meantime, a bill has been proposed to replace the temporary block grant formula with a formula based on class size.

And a consultant firm’s study that cost the legislature $2.6 million suggests that by districts’ spending down their rainy-day funds, the state could save a potential $193 million over the next five years.

“The state impoverished itself by drastically slashing its state income tax,” said John Robb, the lawyer who represented the districts in the lawsuit. “Now, they claim they’re broke and they can’t fund the schools. It’s a self-inflicted wound.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Courts Push Lawmakers to the Wall Over K-12 Funding

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