Law & Courts

Kansas Supreme Court Strikes Down Stopgap Aid Formula

By Daarel Burnette II — February 16, 2016 3 min read
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Last week’s Kansas supreme court ruling that the state’s stopgap funding formula violates its constitution will leave the legislature scrambling to come up with a formula acceptable to the court by the end of the fiscal year in June or risk not having schools open for the 2016-17 academic year.

The state’s high court said Feb. 11 that the formula is inequitable and unconstitutional, leaving districts that serve the state’s poorest students $54 million short annually.

The court has yet to rule on another part of the long-running lawsuit, Gannon v. State of Kansas, dealing with adequacy of funding, which would require the legislature to increase its aid to education by $548 million. The state spends around $4 billion a year on education.

“Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30,” the court said in its opinion, which upheld a lower court’s ruling on the block-funding issue. “The legislature’s chosen path during the 2016 session will ultimately determine whether Kansas students will be treated fairly and the schoolhouse doors will be open to them in August.”

Aftershocks Expected

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

But school districts were pleased, hoping that the ruling would eventually lead to more money being poured into their coffers.

“It all comes back to the fact that districts have very differing abilities to raise revenue to fund schools because of differences in property valuation, and the court is simply saying, ‘You cannot allow those differences to exist in a way that could affect the quality of education in these different districts,’ ” said Mark Tallman, the lobbyist forthe Kansas Association of School Boards. “In that sense, that has always been a key principle we have supported, and hopefully the legislature will be able to quickly respond to this.”

Some lawmakers took a quite opposite view.

“It’s essentially a temper tantrum by the courts to push their political will on the legislature,” said State Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Republican. “It’s kind of one of those things: ‘Give us the money, or the kid gets it.’ ”

The state legislature last week was in the thick of finalizing its budget for next year, and the ruling is likely to hamper that process.

Lawmakers, courts, and school districts have been sparring for years over the amount schools are provided by the state and how that money is distributed.

In 2010, the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City, and Wichita districts sued the state, alleging that its funding formula hurts poor and minority students the most and fails to distribute enough money to provide an adequate education.

After the state supreme court ruled in 2014 that the state’s funding formula was inequitable, the legislature added $140 million last year to its education budget and put in place the block-grant funding formula as a two-year stopgap measure until it could come up with a better formula.

But superintendents complained that the block grant froze most funding outside the state’s teacher-pension fund and fell $54 million short last year, forcing them to ultimately lay off staff and close schools early.

The four districts sued again, this time claiming that the block-grant formula was also inadequate and inequitable, a battle they won in a lower court. The state appealed, leading to last week’s ruling. The state supreme court is expected to rule on the adequacy part of the lawsuit later this year.

The state slashed its personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013, leading to funding shortfalls.

Brownback has argued that the state’s education funding continues to set annual records and provides stability for the state and districts.

Last month, a legislative committee report said superintendents are spending $1 billion more than they did a decade ago in state money though the enrollment has climbed only 7 percent, and yet student performance has either stagnated or fallen. Going forward, the state government needs to more heavily scrutinize school district spending and consolidate services across the state, the report said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Kansas High Court Strikes Down Stopgap Aid Formula

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