Kansas Lawmakers OK Shift to Block-Grant Funding, But Court Fight Looms

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 17, 2015 2 min read
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The Kansas Legislature has approved a plan to end the state’s current K-12 funding formula and replace it with block grants, a move that would also cut general state aid to public schools, but the idea is already running into possible legal snags.

On March 16, the Kansas Senate passed the proposal already approved by House members to distribute state aid to schools in the form of block grants for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, during which time the legislature would be tasked with coming up with a new formula for funding public schools. That would mean Kansas spending on schools would no longer take into account districts’ enrollment, demographics, or transportation needs.

The idea to shift K-12 spending into block grants was initially proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who is dealing with one of the more serious budget crises in the nation. At the start of the year, the state faced a $280 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year (fiscal 2015) and a $436 million shortfall for fiscal 2016, after the governor signed significant tax cuts into law earlier in his tenure. Brownback advertised the block-grant proposal as a way to increase spending flexibility for districts, although local K-12 officials are not pleased with the $51 million in expected state aid that they would lose for fiscal 2016 under the plan.

However, Kansas courts apparently have their own problem with what the legislature has done.

On March 13, soon after the House approved the proposal, a three-judge panel at the state’s 3rd Judicial District Court said that it might move to block the plan “to protect the status quo and to assure the availability of relief.” The panel also said it might re-open a ruling into the equity of the state’s school funding system.

What’s the background? There’s a long-running legal battle in Kansas about the adequacy of state spending on public schools, and the most recent front in that battle is the Gannon v. Kansas case. In 2014, the state Supreme Court ruled in the case that the state’s spending on schools was inequitable from a constitutional perspecive, but referred the dispute over funding adequacy to a lower-court panel. Lawmakers subsequently changed the K-12 finance system to address the question of equity, a remedy the state’s highest court ultimately approved.

Last December, the lower-court panel (also at the 3rd Judicial District Court) ruled the state’s K-12 funding to be “inadequate from any rational perspective,” and identified raising the per-pupil annual spending by the state to $4,654 from $3,852, the equivalent of $548 million more in state aid, as a proper solution. So it’s not entirely surprising that the District Court panel would look askance at the block-grant proposal, and reduction in state aid, approved by the legislature.

Kansas lawmakers have expressed unhappiness with what they see as the court’s improper meddling in affairs that should ultimately be the prerogative of legislators. Is a major fight brewing between the legislature and the legal system?

Also check out this previous coverage:

Kansas Budget Overhaul Includes Changes to School Choice, Teacher Tenure Policies

Kansas K-12 Funding Unconstitutional, Supreme Court Rules; Orders Review

Photo: Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback answers questions from the audience after giving a speech earlier this month at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal/AP)

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