Law & Courts

Kansas Court Orders School Finance Fix

By David J. Hoff — January 11, 2005 4 min read
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The Kansas Supreme Court has given state lawmakers a challenging assignment for the legislative session that starts this week.

Define what constitutes the “suitable” education that the state constitution guarantees Kansas students, the court said, and use an objective way to calculate what it will cost to provide one to the state’s 471,000 pre-K-12 students.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas talks to a 6th grade class in Manhattan, Kan., last spring. The Democratic governor failed to win legislative backing last year for her school finance package.

Oh, and finish the task by April 12.

That order came last week in a preliminary ruling in a 6-year-old finance lawsuit against the state, in which the supreme court ruled that the legislature “has failed to meet its burden” imposed by the constitution to suitably finance public schools.

A 2001 report estimated that the state fell about $800 million a year short of doing so.

“Kansas has never defined the services that the school must provide,” said Sen. John Vratil, the vice chairman of the Senate education committee. “It seems logical to me that it’s got to be the first step.”

But the ultimate solution, which must include Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, will be difficult to negotiate, Mr. Vratil and other members of the GOP-controlled legislature say.

While many legislators have pledged to vote against any tax increase, the reality is that it would be hard to make a major increase in education aid without raising taxes, Mr. Vratil said.

“It’ll be very difficult, if not impossible, to find [the money] in our current budget,” the Republican said. “If you do that, you devastate other areas of our budget. We’re going to have to convince people of the wisdom of a tax increase.”

Struggle Ahead

Other lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

The legislature needs to decide how much complying with the decision will cost before committing to financing new taxes, said Rep. Kathe Decker, a Republican and the chairwoman of a House-Senate committee studying school finance.

Gov. Sebelius was scheduled to give her State of the State Address on Jan. 10. Last year, she outlined a $300 million package of tax increases to help pay for changes required by the trial court in the case. But the legislature adjourned without adopting her plan. (“Kansas Judge Orders State to Shut Schools,” May 19, 2004.)

States big and small will face similar debates in this year’s legislative sessions.

New York must comply with a 2003 ruling from its highest court declaring the state’s funding of New York City schools to be inadequate. (“Pataki Speech Mostly Mum on New York Finance Case,” this issue.)

Elsewhere, Texas legislators will be seeking a solution to a state judge’s ruling last year that the state’s school funding system needs big revisions. (“Judge’s Ruling Cites Flaws in Texas’ School Finance System,” Dec. 8, 2004.)

In Kansas, the debate will center on just what a “suitable education” is and how to calculate what it would cost to provide that to all of its students.

In its brief opinion in Montoy v. State of Kansas, handed down Jan. 4, the state supreme court said that the current financing system is based on “political and other factors not relevant to education.”

The unanimous seven-member court cited a study commissioned by the legislature to estimate the cost of reaching the state’s academic goals.

That study, which was completed in 2001, estimated that Kansas fell about $800 million short of what was required. The state now spends $2.4 billion a year on K-12 schools.

Although the supreme court said the study was “competent evidence” that the state had failed to meet its constitutional obligations, it did not endorse the $800 million price tag.

The study—conducted by the nationally respected consultants John Augenblick and John Myers—should be the guideline for debate, said the lawyer representing the two school districts and the students that filed the lawsuit.

“The supreme court and [the trial judge] both gave the road map for the fix,” said the lawyer Alan L. Rupe, who is based in Wichita. “That road map is Augenblick and Myers.”

But Mr. Vratil said the legislature would look for other research as well.

The study used only one of several methods for estimating the cost of providing an adequate education, he said. “That whole area [of research] is the subject of differing opinions,” he noted. In addition, Mr. Vratil said, the study didn’t consider ways that the state could revise its funding formula and require administrative changes that would save money.

Stay Tuned

The high court issued its preliminary ruling last week to guide lawmakers during their new legislative session. The court said it would issue a formal opinion after the April 12 deadline.

“The legislature, by its action or lack thereof in the 2005 session, will dictate what form our final remedy, if necessary, will take,” the unsigned ruling concluded.

Mr. Rupe, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said that the court’s warning gives the legislators an incentive to do the job right.

Last year, lawmakers failed in an attempt to comply with a lower court’s ruling that the state’s school aid system was inadequate.

“When the Kansas Supreme Court is looking over your shoulder,” Mr. Rupe said, “it’s a pretty big deal for Kansas legislators.”

Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline said it was “appropriate” for the legislature to await the supreme court’s decision. This year, though, lawmakers must act, Mr. Kline said in a statement. “Inaction by the governor and the legislature in the face of this order is unacceptable and invites further action by the court,” he said.

Editorial Administrative Assistant Jessica L. Tonn contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Kansas Court Orders School Finance Fix

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