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Kansas Supreme Court: Change school aid formula and study whether to spend more

03/07/2014 11:15 PM

03/07/2014 11:15 PM

After months of buildup, the Kansas Supreme Court handed down a mixed decision Friday that ordered more money for poor schools, but dodged a larger question about overall education funding.

The high court ruled that cuts in education funding since 2010 led to an unconstitutionally imbalanced playing field between rich and poor schools.

Its decision means lawmakers by July 1 must close the gap estimated by state education officials to be $129 million or a panel of three district court judges will decide how to do it for them.

The court gave the Legislature the flexibility to do something short of adding that much money for schools, but it would be subject to judicial review.

On a grander scale, the court put off a decision on whether Kansas was spending enough on schools to meet its constitutional obligation to suitably finance public education.

It sent that issue back to a lower court for review, stressing that student performance was as important to measure as funding. That could mean months if not years will pass before the issue is settled.

Although the complex court ruling offered no clear victory for either the state or the school districts bringing the lawsuit, some parties on both sides spoke favorably about the ruling.

Today is a great day to be in Kansas, Kansas City, Kan., Superintendent Cynthia Lane told a crowd of more than 100 staff and students Friday.

The courts ruling says that education is our No. 1 priority.

The Kansas City, Kan., district was one of the plaintiffs in the school lawsuit, which claimed the state reneged on promises to increase funding under a 2005 Supreme Court order.

As a district with a poorer property tax base, it figures to benefit from the courts demand for a more equitable school finance formula.

A three-judge panel ruled against the state last year, leading to Fridays ruling and its lingering possibilities.

Were still in limbo, said Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson. There are certainly a lot of unanswered questions. Its frustrating.

While Fridays opinion wont affect Shawnee Mission or Blue Valley immediately, it could send more money into the Kansas City, Kan., district.

The ruling sends a clear message that equitable funding needs to be provided to districts with rich and poor tax bases alike, Lane said. We anticipate that will happen in rapid fashion.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and other legislative leaders embraced the courts ruling.

They noted the court didnt specify an amount for closing the equity gap although state education officials have estimated the added cost at roughly $129 million.

Elected state officials also praised the court for giving the Legislature latitude to decide how to fix the problem without being micromanaged by the justices.

The court specifically contemplates a range of potential responses by the Legislature, Schmidt said. Generally, thats good news and respectful of legislative prerogatives.

Brownback vowed to deal with the equity issues raised by the courts opinion, but it wasnt immediately clear how they might be addressed in this years legislative session.

We arent going to restrict ourselves, said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. We have a lot of options.

Brownback and others in state government said the decision will require time to fully comprehend.

Everybody has got to spend some time now analyzing this and how we move forward, Brownback said. I certainly am going to see what we can do to have a more equitable funding stream.

The governor said the courts decision opens the door to rewriting the school formula, something he tried to do in 2012 but failed.

Everything is wide open, said House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Johnson County Republican.

The courts accommodating approach with the Legislature defused what could have been a constitutional standoff with the judiciary, said University of Kansas constitutional scholar Richard Levy.

Conservative lawmakers have been resentfulsince the Supreme Court ordered them to put millions into schools nine years ago. They believe the court overstepped its bounds by making spending decisions.

On Friday, the court again claimed the authority to force the Legislature to fulfill a constitutional duty to adequately fund education. Yet it opened a door for a new debate on what that means, Levy said.

It gives time for legislative action, Levy said. Its possible by delaying the confrontation that an ultimate confrontation may be avoided.

A larger issue still lingers.

The Supreme Court asked the lower court to revisit whether Kansas schools receive enough money from Topeka. But this time, the justices said the evaluation should be measured less in dollars and more in educational results.

Republican lawmakers took comfort in that aspect of the ruling. They said it validates their argument that money alone doesnt define a quality education for schoolchildren.

Its not about the money we put in, Merrick said. Its about the outcomes we get.

Yet lawyers for the school districts think the new results-oriented standards adopted from a landmark school finance case in Kentucky will help them win their case in the long run.

Were convinced when the trial court does this, were going to prevail again or improve our case, said John Robb, one of the lawyers representing the school districts.

Legislators may bluster about this for a bit, he said. In the end, they will do what theyve taken an oath to do and support the constitution and fund the schools. We have may have some road bumps in the meantime to get there.