Law & Courts

Ruling Sends Kansas Back to Square One on K-12 Funding

By Daarel Burnette II — October 10, 2017 3 min read
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After years of frustrating and politically contentious wrangling over school funding, Kansas policymakers find themselves back at the drawing board in the wake of that state’s supreme court ruling that struck down the latest K-12 funding method as unconstitutional because it still fails to assure an “adequate” and “equitable” public education for the state’s nearly 500,000 students.

Though the court gave state lawmakers until the middle of next year to come up with a new system, that’s likely to do little to cool the tensions the fight has set off between state and local officials, or the bad blood between legislators and the judges they say are overstepping their mandate.

“This ruling shows clear disrespect for the legislative process and puts the rest of state government and programs in jeopardy,” stated Republican Senate leaders Susan Wagle, Jeff Longbine, and Jim Denning in response to the Oct. 2 ruling. “As promised, Senate Republicans remain committed to providing every Kansas student with an exceptional education; however, raising taxesto fund this unrealistic demand is not going to happen.”

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in a statement called the ruling “another regrettable chapter in the never-ending cycle of litigation over Kansas school funding. The court should not substitute its decision for that of the legislature.”

But the ruling brought elation amongst the state’s public school officials and their lawyers.

“It’s another in a line of great court decisions for Kansas kids,” said John Robb, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers. “The court has recognized multiple times that Kansas kids are not getting what the constitution guarantees them.”

Falling Short

In its fifth ruling regarding the case, the state’s high court rejected the latest formula that included a $293 million spending increase this fiscal year for K-12 in an attempt to satisfy the court’s demand. The court also said expanding local tax revenue leads to a public school system of haves and have nots.

Lawyers for the four districts that originally sued the state in the Gannon v. Kansas case said districts should be given more flexibility in spending and that nothing less than $893 million over the next two years—a number based on a 2016 ruling by the state’s high court — would satisfy the constitutionalrequirement or help districts close achievement gaps. The state is spending close to $4.3 billion on K-12 in the current fiscal year.

“While we stay the issuance of today’s mandate through June 30, 2018, after that date we will not allow ourselves to be placed in the position of being complicit actors in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education owed to hundreds of thousands of Kansas schoolchildren,” the judges said in the tersely worded ruling.

The justices asked lawmakers to present something before April 30 of next year so the court will have time before the next school year commences to determine whether the funding formula passes muster.

The funding formula, approved in the waning days of the legislature’s session this year, more closely dictated how schools should spend their money, cracked down on academically wayward schools, and expanded the use of all-day kindergarten and vouchers. The state’s attorney general said the spending methods would dramatically improve educational outcomes and that the court should be patient to see how effective the funding formula was.

Almost a quarter of the state’s students don’t meet basic reading and writing standards.

The legislature, already dealing with a series of spending cuts after a years-longrevenue shortfall, will now have to figure out how to raise more money to spend on its public schools—and do so facing a deadline in the 2018 election year. Legislators have been reluctant to raise taxes, though a growing chorus of teachers and parents in the state have pushed for more spending on schools.

The ruling also will likely amp up the ongoing and closely watched battle between the state’s Republican-dominated legislature and the appointed supreme court over who should decide how to spend money on public schools and how to close an achievement gap between the state’s wealthier, white students and its poor and minority students.

The state’s legislature has said in the past that the court is out of its lane in telling legislatures how to spend. As in previous rulings, the Oct. 2 decision found the funding formula unconstitutional, but did not tell the state how much to spend or what to spend the money on. It also did not give many clues as to how the state should work to improve its schools.

A political effort to unseat the judges and change the language of the state’s constitution in 2016 failed.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Ruling Sends Kansas Back to Square One on K-12 Funding

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