Kansas public schools remain illegally underfunded, a three-judge panel said Tuesday, potentially moving the state closer to a budget and constitutional crisis over taxes and state spending.
Spending for Kansas public schools “is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence,” the judges concluded.
But the Shawnee County District Court panel stopped short of saying exactly what would meet the standard of adequate funding.
Instead, the judges suggested a reasonable floor would require the state to spend at least $802 more a year per public school student — with additional funds allocated for at-risk students and other specific student populations.
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That could mean an additional $548 million a year, applying even more pressure on state lawmakers already scrambling to fill a $700 million budget hole created largely by deep income tax cuts enacted at the urging of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
The judges said the Legislature would have to figure out how to cover the shortfall.
“Avoidance is not an option,” the judges said, blaming the problem on a “self-imposed fiscal dilemma.”
Republicans generally took a wait-and-see approach to the ruling, but hinted at a major battle with the courts if judges tried to order the increase directly.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said the state is examining its options. He said part of the decision appears to conflict with a state Supreme Court ruling on school finance from earlier this year.
Brownback said in a statement that he was still examining the opinion, adding in broad terms that he wants new education policies.
He renewed his call for revamping the school formula, something he tried without success in 2012. He also wants new unspecified education policies to put more money into the classroom.
“I will be working with legislative leadership to address the best path forward,” Brownback said.
Republican Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita struck a harsher tone, saying that “the lower court has assumed a very political and antagonistic posture in this ruling.”
Sen. Steven Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, was even more critical.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “The people who voted for their representatives aren’t going to be too happy with the unelected judges saying their money has to go more into the schools.”
Republican state Rep. Melissa Rooker of Fairway, on the other hand, said the court’s ruling underscores the state’s fiscal swamp after years of income tax cuts.
“This Legislature needs to face the economic reality that confronts us,” Rooker said. “We need to get real.”
Alan Rupe, one of the lawyers representing the school districts and students who brought the lawsuit, called the ruling “happiness postponed.”
“It’s a good ruling, but it’s part of a process,” Rupe said. “Happiness will come the day the kids in Kansas receive adequate funding and a constitutional education.”
The decision marked the second time a panel of Shawnee County district judges had been asked to rule on school finance. Almost two years ago, the same panel ordered the state to put an estimated $500 million more into Kansas schools.
But last spring, the Kansas Supreme Court rejected that figure and told the judges to reconsider the adequacy of the state’s budget for schools.
The justices said the lower court should evaluate the question less in terms of dollars and more on whether current funding actually translates to a decent education.
The panel was ordered to assess the adequacy of school funding by applying a test established in a landmark education case from Kentucky, a yardstick the three judges used Tuesday.
They found the state wasn’t meeting those standards and would fall short in the future if spending didn’t climb dramatically.
The conservative-leaning Kansas Policy Institute blasted the court ruling. The group’s president, Dave Trabert, said the court appeared to have sidestepped the standards set out in the Kentucky case.
“The judges essentially dusted off their original decision that was rejected by the Supreme Court and added some new legal jargon attempting to justify their original action,” Trabert said in a statement.
But incoming House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs of Kansas City, Kan., said Brownback needs to live up to his education promises.
“Gov. Brownback talked a big game about school funding while he campaigned for re-election last fall,” the Democrat said in a statement. “Now it’s time for him to ante up and finally restore dollars back to our classrooms.”
The panel’s ruling extended beyond the adequacy of state funding. It also addressed the use of the local option budget, a device used in many districts — including in Johnson County — to supplement state spending.
The court said lawmakers could not rely on the local spending to meet state requirements for school budgets, the strategy lawmakers used last year. Schools, the court said, are capped at what they can raise locally, and there is no state requirement forcing them to raise local tax dollars.
The court also suggested that relying on local taxing authority to provide adequate education funding could create more disparity between rich and poor parts of the state.
Rupe said the court’s decision should signal the Legislature that letting local school districts raise more money is not the answer to the meeting the state’s educational responsibilities.
“There is a real temptation to increase the funding through local money,” he said, “because you don’t want to raise taxes.”
Tuesday’s decision may increase pressure on lawmakers to rewrite the entire school finance formula that determines how much aid a school district gets from state taxpayers. Brownback and state Republicans have suggested just such an effort next year.
A new formula might or might not address the concerns of the districts who have sued the state over inadequate funds.
It also could lead to a dismissal of the current lawsuit, delaying the impact of Tuesday’s ruling for years.
“It’s possible that there might be some additional impetus for revising the funding formula from this decision, which could then essentially force the plaintiffs to start over at square one,” said Richard Levy, a constitutional scholar at the University of Kansas.
The court said the case should not be concluded until the Legislature has had time to act and enough time has passed to gauge whether schools are funded at levels that comply with the state’s constitution.
In their decision, the judges encouraged the state and the plaintiffs to renew efforts at mediation.
Few lawmakers on either side of the dispute expect Tuesday’s ruling to be the final answer in the decades-old Kansas spending argument.
“It’s a non-starter,” said state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican.
Rooker predicted that conservative lawmakers will wage a battle over school spending in the months ahead.
“They are desperate to find any way they can to reduce the education footprint on the state budget,” she said, “so that they can continue to support their income tax cuts.”