A three-judge panel ruled Friday that Gov. Sam Brownback’s block grant funding of public education is inequitable and unconstitutional.
In an 87-page ruling, the Shawnee County District Court judges ordered that the state solve the problem by reinstating parts of the school-finance formula repealed by the block-grant bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor earlier this year.
The ruling is nearly certain to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The court ruled that the bill violates the state constitution “both in regard to its adequacy of funding and in its change of, and in its embedding of, inequities in the provision of capital outlay state aid and supplemental general state aid.”
The court disputed Brownback’s claim that the state is providing more aid to schools under the block-grant plan than it did before.
“Though promoted as a change and an improvement in K-12 funding, (the law) really encompasses … what is no more than a freeze on … operational funding for two years,” the court wrote.
It went on to say that any increase comes “by way of adding in, under the guise of operational funds, Kansas Public Employee Retirement System employer contributions … to the ‘block’ of funds provided.”
The law was challenged by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kan., school districts. They argued that it distributed state funds in ways that harmed programs for poor and minority students.
The four districts sued the state in 2010, and legislators boosted aid to poor school districts last year to meet a Kansas Supreme Court mandate in the case. But the high court returned the case to the lower-court panel to review additional legal issues — including the validity of the new funding law.
Kansas distributes more than $4 billion a year in aid to school districts, but the four suing the state contend it’s not adequate. The same lower-court panel declared in December that the state must increase its annual aid by at least $548 million, but the state has appealed to the Supreme Court.
The new law also cut the aid all districts expected to receive during the current school year by $54 million, or about 1.1 percent, to help balance the state budget. The state’s budget problems arose after slashing personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 in an effort to boost its economy.
The panel cited those reductions as a reason that key parts of the new funding law are unconstitutional.
Supporters of the new law argue that this year’s cut in aid merely returns the amount to what lawmakers thought it would be last year. They also note that the loss of aid still leaves school districts with far more money from the state than they had during the 2013-2014 school year.
But the state’s spending under the new law going forward is far short of the three-judge panel’s figure for annual spending.
The four aggrieved districts also argued that under the new law, the state’s aid won’t be distributed in ways that help poorer districts offer as good an education to their students as wealthier ones.
The districts argue that the law is flawed because, unlike the old formula, it doesn’t automatically provide extra dollars if their numbers of students grow or if more students need programs because they’re dropout risks or learning English.
The three-judge panel labeled the move to grants “pernicious.”
If its ruling is upheld, lawmakers say it would probably force a special legislative session to make court-ordered fixes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.