A showdown at the Kansas Supreme Court on Tuesday could determine how much money your child’s school receives — and whether you may eventually have to pay more in taxes.
Several school districts and the state are fighting over whether a new funding formula adequately funds public education. Districts suing the state say it does not. The state contends it does.
The formula — passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor earlier this year — gives schools overall about $195 million more in this budget year and about $290 million more in the year after that.
If the court were to reject the new formula, lawmakers could be called into a special session later this summer or fall. The justices could also call for changes next year — potentially more funding that could require new tax money to pay for it.
Tuesday’s oral arguments before the court are the latest step in a years-long legal dispute over funding. It’s not clear when the court will issue a ruling, but it could come within weeks. The court has allowed the new formula to go into effect while it deliberates, enabling schools to prepare for the beginning of classes.
Here are three keys to understanding what’s at stake ahead of the showdown.
1. The gap between how much funding the districts want and how much the state says is OK is massive.
The plaintiff school districts — including Kansas City, Kan. — say the lowest estimate of what it would take to constitutionally fund schools is $893 million more over two years.
They base this on an estimate provided by the Kansas State Board of Education. The state and the districts disagree on whether the board of education based the figure on what it believes is needed to constitutionally fund education.
The state said the new formula, designed to better target students at risk of falling behind academically, is “vastly improved” over the previous formula.
2. If the districts win outright, the additional funding needed will almost certainly require additional taxes or extensive cuts.
If the court sides with the districts and requires the state to increase funding by the amount put forward by the state board of education, lawmakers would likely need to increase taxes or make severe cuts to state government to pay for it.
Lawmakers in June passed a package of income tax increases to generate $1.2 billion in revenue over two years. Under the new school funding formula, Kansas is spending an extra $485 million on schools during that same two-year period. The rest of the tax increases are covering other state costs and helping to build a positive budget ending balance.
Raising taxes again would likely prove politically difficult. It took lawmakers several weeks to gather enough support to approve a tax bill over Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto.
3. This probably isn’t the end.
No matter how the court rules, Kansas history suggests disputes over school funding will continue.
The Supreme Court ruled in a major school funding case in 2005, ordering more than $800 million in additional funding to be phased in over a number of years. The state did increase funding but then began cutting it during the recession.
More than a decade later, the court is about to make another significant ruling. The ruling will probably not be the last word in the current lawsuit: many observers expect the court will retain jurisdiction over the lawsuit for some time to ensure the Legislature carries out whatever the court rules.