The Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday that the Legislature’s latest school financing scheme is unconstitutional should surprise no one.
Gov. Sam Brownback and lawmakers invited the legal critique last year when they scrapped the state’s education funding formula, ignored recommendations on how much money schools would need, and adopted a more stingy and less flexible “block grant” method that immediately caused hardships for many districts.
The ruling that the state has fallen short of providing equitable funding to public school districts certainly raises the stakes for this legislative session.
The Legislature and governor already are scrambling to find ways to close a budget shortfall of about $200 million. By passing reckless income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 they erased the state’s ability to absorb unforeseen expenses.
But the court’s decision sets a June 30 deadline to resolve the funding inequities. That would appear to involve finding an extra $54 million — the amount the Legislature removed from education funding when it struggled to pass a budget last year.
Should lawmakers refuse or fail to restore the funding, the courts would decree that “no constitutionally valid school finance system exists” and public schools in Kansas would have to shut down.
The governor and conservative lawmakers will bluster, accusing judges of “a temper tantrum” and the like, but they brought this trouble on themselves and the state.
The move to block-grant funding last year saddles school districts with a fixed amount of funding for two years, regardless of developments such as an influx of at-risk students or variations in local property taxes. Lawmakers compounded the problem by allocating less for education than they knew would be needed.
Bad as it is, the situation could get worse. The legal fight over equitable funding is a backdrop to a much larger issue being reviewed by the Kansas Supreme Court: Is overall school funding adequate to guarantee children a suitable education as required in the state’s Constitution?
A district judge has said it isn’t. If the Supreme Court agrees, Kansas could be directed to increase school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Because of the devastating tax cuts and other decisions made on Brownback’s watch, Kansas government now operates in a perpetual state of fiscal crisis. Even a brief closure of public schools would irreparably damage the state’s credibility and national standing.
Kansas deserves better from its leaders. They should regard this latest ruling as an urgent call to acknowledge that the state’s deep budget wound will not be repaired without rolling back the tax cuts that have caused so much damage.
The last thing Kansas needs is another standoff over education funding. Lawmakers need to fix the problem, and quickly.