The Kansas Legislature’s funding of schools remains constitutionally inequitable, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday, reaffirming its June 30 deadline for lawmakers to fix the problem or have the state’s school system shut down.
The justices ruled that lawmakers failed to fulfill the court’s order in February that funding to poor school districts be increased.
The decision came in Gannon v. State of Kansas, a lawsuit filed by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kan., school districts.
Justices presented the ruling as the Legislature’s one last opportunity to fix inequitable funding. The Legislature will have a chance to address the court finding when it meets Wednesday for its annual “sine die” session, ordinarily the ceremonial ending of the legislative year. It was not immediately known whether lawmakers will take up the contentious issue then.
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Republican leaders immediately blasted the decision, accusing the court of taking a political position and interfering with the Legislature’s authority.
“The legislature acted in good faith to equalize the record amounts of money going to schools,” Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, wrote in a statement Friday. “This court is planning to shut down schools over less than 1 percent of the total education budget. Frankly, I find their actions disgraceful.”
Apparently anticipating the criticism, the court put responsibility for keeping the schools open on the Legislature.
“The inability of Kansas schools to operate would not be because this court would have ordered them closed,” the opinion said. “Rather, it would be because this court would have performed its sworn duty to the people of Kansas under their constitution to review the legislature’s enactments and to ensure the legislature’s compliance with its own duty under Article 6” of the state constitution.
The court ruled on a new school finance law that revised parts of the state’s funding formula but resulted in no change in total funds for most of the state’s 286 school districts. It was the third school finance law approved in as many years.
With the latest law, Republican lawmakers hoped to keep the court from following through on the threat it made in a February ruling to shut schools down.
Lawmakers this year faced a budget crunch that followed massive personal income tax cuts and were hamstrung by strong political opposition to redistributing funds from wealthy districts.
Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the state slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy, a nationally watched fiscal experiment. Brownback hasn’t backed off his signature tax cuts, and enough lawmakers haven’t bucked him.
On Friday, Brownback blamed the court for raising the possibility of closing schools.
“The court is engaging in political brinksmanship with this ruling, and the cost will be borne by our children,” Brownback wrote in a statement released after the decision. “We will carefully consider the implications of the court’s ruling and its disregard for the proper role of the Kansas Legislature.”
The state’s lawyers have argued that legislators tried to address the court’s concerns about school funding and that the justices had no reason to shut down schools.
But lawyers for the four school districts suing the state argued that legislators only shuffled existing funds.
The lawsuit filed in 2010 followed up on one in 1999 that forced lawmakers to promise big increases in annual spending on public schools, which now tops $4 billion. Legislators kept their promises at first but backed off during the Great Recession.
The court has repeatedly said the Kansas Constitution requires lawmakers to finance a suitable education for every child.
Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools superintendent Cynthia Lane welcomed the court’s ruling, saying it reaffirmed equal education’s place among traditional Kansas values.
“All students, no matter where they live, deserve access to quality educational opportunities,” Lane said.
Shawnee Mission School District leaders said Friday they were studying the ruling.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, posted a tweet indicating a willingness to work on a solution.
The court’s past rulings have made conservative Republicans who lead the Legislature increasingly hostile and suspicious of the justices.
Several Republican leaders criticizing the decision Friday mentioned the fact that five of the seven justices will be up for retention on the November general election ballot.
Six of the justices were appointed by Democratic or moderate Republican governors and only one by conservative Brownback.
The justices ordered an increase in aid to poor districts in 2014, and lawmakers complied. But when the price ballooned, GOP legislators rewrote the school funding law again to make spending more predictable.
In their ruling, justices said the Legislature’s fix didn’t solve the problem of inequitable funding and may have made it worse.
The reason was that it contained a “hold harmless” provision that guaranteed the bill wouldn’t reduce local option budget funding for any school district, although the vast majority wouldn’t get any more. The local option budget, or LOB, is money that voters can elect to tax themselves to provide extra funding for their own schools.
Last year’s changes prompted the court’s ruling in February that the block grant system was unconstitutionally inequitable because of disparities in locally generated local option budget funding and building construction money the state provides to poorer districts.
Legislative leaders already have committed to writing another school funding law next year, prompting the state’s lawyers to argue that this year’s changes represented an acceptable short-term fix.
But attorneys for the school districts argued that legislators were obligated either to boost the state’s overall spending on schools to help poor districts or to redistribute existing dollars from wealthy districts to poor ones.
Justices have temporarily put on the back burner the question of whether funding is adequate overall to deal with the issue of whether students in property-poor districts have a substantially equal opportunity compared with pupils in rich districts.
Part of school funding comes from property taxes, and wealthy districts can easily raise large sums of money with relatively small increases in the tax rate. Not so for poor districts, where it takes a large jump in property tax rates to generate similar income for the schools.
Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney representing the four plaintiff school districts, said Kansas will have to boost education funding by $17.5 million to nearly $30 million for the 2016-17 school year to satisfy the court’s order.
Rupe said it would cost $17.5 million to sufficiently increase aid to poor school districts. If lawmakers want to keep other districts from losing aid, he said, they’d have to provide an additional $12 million.
House Democratic leader Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, put the blame on Brownback and his Republican allies for not sufficiently funding schools.
“Today, the Supreme Court finally said enough is enough” Burroughs wrote in a statement Friday. “Kansas school children deserve better. The Legislature should take whatever action is necessary to keep our schools open, something Democrats have been calling for all along.”
Justice Lee Johnson filed a separate opinion partially dissenting from the majority’s ruling.
He agreed with the majority that the Legislature had failed to fix the inequities but wanted to take a more aggressive stance on the remedy.
He said he wanted to order the Legislature to return to its last constitutionally acceptable funding formula, which was repealed when the Legislature passed Brownback’s block grant plan.
“In my view, maintaining the integrity of our state constitution and providing of the equitable educational opportunities for our children are too important for this court to be constrained by any concern that the legislature will be offended that we told it how to do its job,” Johnson wrote.
“By allowing the legislature to close the schools and shut off all monies to all the public schools through the simple tack of taking no action to fix the unconstitutional inequities, this court would be enabling the legislature’s dereliction of constitutional duty,” he wrote. “Moreover, I fear that some (legislators) might view the closure of all public schools as a victory.”
The Star’s Ian Cummings, Edward M. Eveld, Joe Robertson and Scott Canon, plus The Associated Press and The Wichita Eagle, contributed to this report.