Sherlock Holmes once solved a mystery by recognizing the fact that the dog didn’t bark. In other words, the key clue was what did not happen.
What we did not hear after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that schools in the state are not adequately funded were the usual cries from legislators that the court has no jurisdiction in these matters and that it is up to the Legislature to appropriate funds.
We did not hear venomous statements about “activist” judges or threats to ignore the court’s ruling. We didn’t hear that howl from the Legislature because the high court did not tell lawmakers how much funding must be increased to be considered adequate. Although there have been estimates of $500 million to $1 billion, those are just wild guesses. The fact is, the Legislature might be able to comply with perhaps a $300 million increase over three years. An attorney who closely follows K-12 litigation offered that estimate.
The justices were wise not to impose an exact number.
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As Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman Jr., a Republican from Olathe, said, “The court has left it in our hands to do our job.”
I spoke with half a dozen Johnson County legislators and attorneys who unanimously had no quarrel with the basic premise of the ruling. They did not dispute that the one-fourth of Kansas students who are not meeting achievement standards should be targeted for more funding to bring them in line with their peers. They have no problem, for example, with Wyandotte County students receiving more per-pupil than Johnson County students.
So, where does that leave Johnson County? After all, the schools there did not fare well under the 1992 school funding formula, which tilted school spending to poorer districts, often at the expense of wealthier districts.
Several leaders in Johnson County told me they are across-the-board thrilled that the court did not order a return to that formula, which was considered by many to have been a disaster for Johnson County schools.
They are right. The old formula held down Johnson County kids.
Still, there are a few Johnson County legislators who, since the ruling, already have been pushing for a return to that old formula. That is completely incomprehensible.
As for Johnson County schools, the Supreme Court has thrown them a lifeline.
For the first time, the court has made it clear that funds raised locally by local authority can be counted in adequacy of funding. Until now, there has been an ongoing argument, particularly outside of Johnson County, over whether the local option budget that provides millions of additional funds is constitutional.
The Supreme Court said local funds, federal funds and funds for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System could all be counted in determining whether funding is adequate. This will be critical in devising a new formula.
What is also important for Johnson County schools is that both the speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning are from Johnson County. And while they must look out for students across the state, they will have a big say in whether the new formula will be fair to Johnson County.