The Kansas Supreme Court surprised people on both sides of the state’s 7-year-old school finance case late last month when it ruled that the state had complied with the court’s order to increase funding and dismissed the case, but declined to say whether the new spending plan is constitutional.
In the court’s 4-2 decision, handed down July 28, the majority wrote that “the legislature materially and fundamentally changed the way K-12 [education] is funded in the state.” In particular, the justices noted that, in passing Senate Bill 549 earlier this year, “the legislature has substantially responded to our concerns” about the need to increase funding for students in special education, bilingual students, and those deemed at risk of academic failure.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, signed the legislation in May. It included a record-high K-12 budget of nearly $2.9 billion for fiscal 2007. The spending plan includes a $466 million increase in state aid over the next three years. During the seven years of legislation, more than $1 billion has been added to the state education budget, according to Alan L. Rupe, the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case.
For example, in the 1998-99 school year, base per-pupil aid was $3,720. In the new budget, that amount will reach $4,433 in the 2008-09 school year.
But the majority opinion seemed to ignore part of the court’s own order of June 3, 2005, which required the state not only to increase funding, but also to prove that the increase would result in a “suitable” education for Kansas children as required by the state constitution.
Saying that the new budget is far different from the budget the supreme court originally considered, the majority wrote that it could not pass judgment on the constitutionality of SB 549 in the absence of a new lawsuit.
Rather, the merits of the new finance litigation “must be litigated in a new action filed in the district court,” the opinion reads. “A constitutional challenge of SB 549 must wait for another day.”
Justice Carol A. Beier, disagreeing with the court’s decision to dismiss the case rather than send it back to the district court, wrote in her dissenting opinion: “If the state has demonstrated compliance with our directives, the legislature has corrected the constitutional deficiencies in the Kansas design for school finance.”
Conversely, she wrote, if the state has not met the spending requirement, the new budget could not be considered constitutional.
“Logically and legally, if we meant what we have said, one cannot be satisfied without the other,” Justice Beier wrote.
Mr. Rupe, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said he had expected the high court’s decision to be more in line with Justice Beier’s opinion. “I expected the court to retain jurisdiction until the legislature completed its trip to adequacy” as required by the court’s earlier decisions, he said. “But it’s kind of hard to be disappointed when you look at what we’ve accomplished,” he added, referring to the increases in state funding since the case was filed.
Sen. John L. Vratil, the Republican vice chairman of the Senate education committee, said that by not determining the constitutionality of the Senate bill, the decision “almost invites litigation.”
Dan Biles, the lawyer representing the state board of education, said he was pleased with the decision, but was also surprised that the court did not rule on the budget’s constitutionality.
When asked if he thought there would be further school finance litigation in Kansas, he answered without hesitation: “Isn’t there always?”
A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week as Kansas Court Delivers Mixed Message in School Aid Case