“Yes, money makes a difference.”
A panel of three Kansas judges made that declaration Tuesday when it issued a ruling that affirms what educators and parents have long contended: Children in well-funded schools gain better educational outcomes, and Kansas is cheating its children and its future by inadequately financing public schools.
The judges told the state that it needs to spend more on schools, but stopped short of dictating an amount or suggesting where the money would come from.
The ruling cites a figure of $4,654 per pupil as a benchmark for what the state should be spending now — a marked increase over the $3,852 per pupil that is currently budgeted.
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To meet that recommended amount would create even more of a burden for the Kansas Legislature, which already must close a deficit of more than $700 million in the current and next fiscal years.
Early indications are that the state might have to spend an extra $500 million a year on K-12 education.
Apparently referring to the reckless tax cuts the Legislature passed in 2012 and 2013 and Gov. Sam Brownback signed, the judicial panel wrote, “We understand the self-imposed fiscal dilemma now facing the State of Kansas, both with or without this opinion. Since the obligations here declared emanate from our Kansas Constitution, avoidance is not an option.”
The ruling, one of many court orders dealing with Kansas school financing over the past decade, is sure to complicate an already challenging legislative session starting in a couple of weeks.
The state doesn’t have enough money to even contemplate adding hundreds of million of dollars to its school funding formula. An appeal of the district court panel’s ruling is a strong possibility.
Also, key lawmakers have been talking about rewriting the school finance formula. Look for an attempt to draft a new formula in a way that redefines a constitutionally “adequate” education.
In other words, more avoidance.
And if that happens, look for more legal action.
A little history: In 2006, after years of legal squabbling, the Kansas Legislature agreed to increase its funding for elementary and secondary schools by $466 million, to be phased in over three years. The Kansas Supreme Court agreed that the plan met constitutional requirements.
But the state reneged on its funding commitments when the 2008 recession hit. Then it opted to drastically cut taxes for upper income individuals and certain businesses instead of restoring money to schools and vital services.
Per pupil funding hit a peak of $4,400 in 2009, and stands at $3,852 today. While many other states are boosting spending on education, Kansas has fallen far behind.
The judicial panel’s opinion recounts testimony from Cynthia Lane, superintendent of schools in Kansas City, Kan. She talked about the impressive academic gains made by low-income children at Emerson Elementary School after the district received resources from a federal grant to work intensively with students, teachers and parents.
“It’s not about the children’s capacity to learn,” Lane told the court. “It’s about being able to provide them instruction in a way that helps them move forward.”
Kansas owes that to its school children. Today’s ruling should be more inspiration for Brownback and the Legislature to roll back the tax cuts that have left the state barely able to function.
That would be a bold stroke. As the court said, “avoidance is not an option.”