School finance lawsuits have been part of the educational landscape since Superintendent Cynthia Lane took the helm of the Kansas City, Kan., school district seven years ago.
Lane said that since 2010 — when Kansas City, Kan., and three other school districts sued the state over funding — her staff has been consumed with finding ways to provide for students with state funds that haven’t kept up with increasing costs. School administrators fought similar battles long before her tenure.
On Thursday, the Kansas Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state has failed to adequately fund its public schools and challenged lawmakers to come up with a solution that would meet constitutional standards by June 30. For Kansas City, Kan., administrators, the decision was a positive sign that the courts will hold lawmakers accountable for finding more resources for students.
“I am hopeful that I can look past the horizon where we don’t have to spend energy on these kind of things,” Lane said. “We can set aside what we won’t be able to do and finally talk about what each of our students” needs to be prepared for college or to enter the workforce.
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Lane said the court’s decision signaled a potential end to a “minimalist education experience” for Kansas schoolchildren.
While the ruling did not mandate a specific price tag or course of action, school leaders throughout the Kansas City area cautiously called the decision a victory, even as it remained unclear where lawmakers would find the money to support schools and whether measures to bring Kansas funding up to standard would have to be implemented over time.
“We recognize that this decision presents challenges for the state, given the fiscal situation,” interim Olathe Superintendent Patricia All said in a statement. “We will need to take time to fully review this decision to understand its complete impact on the Olathe Public Schools.”
The court’s decision indicated that restoring the state’s old school finance system and increasing the base aid per student would satisfy its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate eduction for students.
Lawmakers in Topeka have struggled to find common ground with Gov. Sam Brownback about ways to bring in new revenue to the state as it faces more than $1 billion in projected shortfalls through June 2019.
He vetoed a tax bill last month that would have raised more than that over a two-year span.
But Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling means lawmakers may have to bring in even more money to satisfy the court’s call to adequately fund schools
“We look at this decision as an opportunity for the state of Kansas to push the re-set button on school funding and invest in our future by making the education of our students a priority,” a Blue Valley Schools release stated. “We stand ready to work with legislators as they shoulder the responsibility of developing a new school funding formula that meets the direction provided by the court and aligns with the needs of all Kansas students.”
Opponents of increased state funding have said in the past that more money doesn’t necessarily mean better results.
“Success is not measured in dollars spent, but in higher student performance,” Brownback said Thursday.
But school administrators maintain that increased funds will help support struggling students, including the roughly one-fourth of public school students who lack basic math and reading skills that the Supreme Court cited in its decision.
“Resources matter,” All, the Olathe interim superintendent, wrote in an email. “When we have high rigor, relevant curriculum and experiences for students, strong relationships with staff, research-based instruction, then resources make all of that possible and more. It guarantees positive outcomes.”
In Kansas City, Kan., where more than 80 percent of the student population receives free and reduced-price lunches, school administrators say more funding would allow the district to decrease class sizes, boost compensation packages that could attract better teachers and support tutoring and enrichment programs that would target struggling students.
“We know it costs more to educate children considered to be at risk because they haven’t had the same opportunity and experience that those with more resources can provide children at home,” Lane said. “We have to know our kids as learners but we also have to know what they are hopeful for and really develop an individual plan for each child.”
Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.