Government & Politics

Kansas Supreme Court rules the state has failed to ensure adequate education funding

Kansas lawmakers have until the end of June to fix the state’s school finance system after the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state had failed to ensure adequate funding for public schools.

The court determined that the state is failing to provide roughly one-fourth of its public school students with basic math and reading skills. If the state fails to demonstrate the adequacy of a new funding system by June 30, then the state’s current system will become invalid, which would trigger a shutdown of the schools.

Four school districts, including Kansas City, Kan., first sued the state in 2010 for more education funding, contending that the state was failing to meet a constitutional requirement for suitable funding.

Thursday’s ruling did not specify an exact dollar figure for fixing the finance system, but it did reference conclusions previously made by a district court that restoring the state’s old school finance system and increasing the base aid per student would satisfy the requirement.

John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiff districts, pegged the cost of doing this at roughly $800 million.

“And I don’t think this should be a surprise to anybody. Everybody’s been talking about that big number for an extended time period,” Robb said.

However, Dale Dennis, the director of school finance for the Kansas Department of Education, said that the cost would be closer to $535 million. Dennis noted that the court did not say that this amount was required, just that court said it would accept this as a solution.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who leads the House budget committee, called the ruling ambiguous. It comes at a time when the state is facing a roughly $1 billion budget hole through June 2019.

“It’s going to be interesting. That’s the best way I can put it,” Waymaster said.

Gov. Sam Brownback said in a statement that the court “correctly observes that our education system has failed to provide a suitable education for the lowest performing 25 percent of students,” but he also pushed back on the notion that more money would necessarily fix this problem.

“The Kansas Legislature has the opportunity to engage in transformative educational reform by passing a school funding system that puts students first. Success is not measured in dollars spent, but in higher student performance,” Brownback said.

He also called for the Legislature to “equip parents of struggling students with the power they need to determine the best education for their child,” hinting that he could push for vouchers or other school choice measures as part of a new formula.

“If they believe a quality education is not possible in their local public school, they should be given the opportunity and resources to set their child up for success through other educational choices,” Brownback said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a statement that when lawmakers work on a new formula they “must take into account the many complex factors that affect student performance. Today’s ruling implies that the main focus needs to be on better educating those kids who are performing most poorly.”

The court pointed to the achievement gap that exists between low-income and minority students and their peers. “And the numbers of all students failing to reach proficiency in core subjects each year continue to be significant,” the ruling said.

Schmidt said that the state’s interest in “bringing this litigation to an end can best be met by a bold legislative response, enacted swiftly, squarely targeting the constitutional defects the court identified.”

Regardless of the exact cost, it’ll be difficult for Kansas to cover that expense given its current budget constraints.

“We do not have that money,” said Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican.

Robb called the ruling “justice for kids” and said that Kansas students who began school when the case was filed have gone “three-fourths of a way through their education and have not had an adequate education.” Robb said that the money could be phased in gradually over two or three years.

Kansas narrowly escaped a statewide shutdown of its public schools last year when lawmakers resolved the portion of the case dealing with equity in a special session. A similar scenario could play out this year as lawmakers search for a fix to the much more expensive adequacy issue.

“The notion that there is no money is a self-inflicted condition,” Robb said.

Cynthia Lane, the superintendent of the Kansas City, Kan., school district, said the decision signals the end to a “minimalist education experience.” The extra funding, she said, would allow the district to provide additional tutoring, reduce class sizes and “ensure that we have quality teachers in every classroom by looking at compensation packages that are competitive.”

Lane noted that 84 percent of the district’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a marker that reflects the district’s high poverty rate.

“We know it costs more to educate children considered to be at risk because they haven’t had the same opportunity and experience that those with more resources can provide children at home,” Lane said.

The other school districts that sued the state are Dodge City, Hutchinson and Wichita, but the decision will impact all school districts in Kansas. The decision was unanimous, but two of court’s justices — Carol Beier, whose husband is a teacher, and Caleb Stegall, Brownback’s former attorney and sole appointee to the court — recused themselves from the case.

Patricia All, the interim superintendent of the Olathe school district, said the ruling would help the district’s “efforts to meet the needs of all our students, as well as the expectations of the state and community to prepare students to be college and career ready.”

The state scrapped its school finance system in 2015 at Brownback’s urging, enacting temporary block grants as a stopgap measure. Even before the court issued its ruling lawmakers would have faced a June 30 deadline to replace the block grants, which expire at the end of this school year.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said the ruling will give more urgency to the discussions on a new formula.

“That’s a pretty fast track, but again it’s not surprising because if the current system is unconstitutional, we can’t proceed forward into the new fiscal year with that system,” Hineman said. “So it does put some pressure on us, but I believe it’s doable.”

Other lawmakers were less optimistic about the Legislature’s ability to craft a plan in that amount of time.

“I think that is very aggressive,” Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, said of the June 30 deadline. “Purposely aggressive. I would question the timing of that, given the situation we’re in. I would question what adequacy is.”

Lynn said the ruling “had overtones of a gotcha.”

Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat and teacher in Johnson County, said he didn’t think it was any mystery the court would rule this way.

“Everyone’s been asked to do more than they were before,” Parker said of Kansas teachers.

Brownback has been critical of the state’s highest court for directing the Legislature on how it should fund schools. He’s also been critical of school districts’ spending, saying that too much money goes to administration and not enough money finds its way into the classroom.

K-12 education is already the biggest item in the state’s budget with the state spending roughly $4 billion annually.

The ruling could complicate Brownback’s negotiations with the Legislature on budget and tax plans.

Waymaster said that a tax plan will have to partner with the school finance fix. He also said that the ruling should permanently rule out the possibility of education budget cuts as part of the solution for fixing the state’s current year budget hole, something that Senate leaders have pursued.

“That’s not going to be possible now. When you have the Supreme Court telling you that you need to spend more you can’t turn around and cut,” Waymaster said.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who leads the Senate budget committee, said she expects lawmakers to take up changes to the 2017 budget on Monday before legislators focus on passing a new formula.

“The first thing I feel we need to do is just rectify our 2017 budget,” McGinn said. “And then at least we know where, you know, our floor is.”

Mark Desetti, the legislative director of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said that lawmakers will have to “to act on taxes as soon as possible. They absolutely must reverse this tax disaster.”

Brownback vetoed a bill last week that would have rolled back the tax cuts he ushered into law during his first term as part of a budget fix.

“I hope the governor relents and says, OK, the people and the courts have spoken,” Desetti said.

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