The Kansas Supreme Court found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional this week.
Now, everyone wants to know: How much money is it going to take?
“I have no idea,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City.
Lawmakers are scrambling to figure out how much additional funding may be needed – and how much more the state could even afford.
Wolfe Moore’s response is emblematic of lawmakers interviewed. So far, few are prepared to give a concrete answer.
The state’s high court ruled Monday that the new school finance system the Legislature passed this spring doesn’t pass muster and provides neither adequate nor equitable funding. Keeping with earlier opinions, the justices did not say how much funding they would find acceptable.
But some lawmakers believe the court clearly expects additional dollars.
“Obviously, from my reading of the opinion, they’re wanting more money,” said Rep. Erin Davis, R-Olathe.
Under the new school funding formula, Kansas is spending an additional $485 million on schools during a two-year period starting this school year. Lawmakers also passed an income tax increase projected to generate $1.2 billion in new revenue over the same time.
Attorneys for the school districts that launched the lawsuit known as Gannon that led to Monday’s ruling have said the increase was $600 million short of what is needed.
The state’s revenue picture during the current fiscal year, which began in July, looks good so far. Legislative researchers currently project the state to end the fiscal year in June of 2018 with a positive balance of more than $191 million.
In theory, some of the end balance could be put toward schools if lawmakers choose to do so.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she was still analyzing the decision. But she said citizens and interest groups are pressing lawmakers about concerns other than public school funding in the run-up to the legislative session, which begins in January.
The implication: greater funding for schools could come at the cost of more resources for other programs. She cited staffing concerns voiced just this week by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation as an example.
“It’s very hard after giving $300 million additional dollars to schools and hearing from other constituencies who have special needs to feel that the needs are as great in K-12,” Wagle said.
On the day of the ruling, Wagle and other Senate Republican leaders ruled out responding with a tax increase.
Not every lawmaker has gone that far, however.
Rep. Steven Johnson, the Republican chairman of the House Tax Committee, outlined four potential options: raise taxes, cut spending, fail to answer the court, or a “cocktail” combining those options.
Ignoring the court, or failing to pass satisfactory changes to the law during the upcoming session, opens the door to consequences most lawmakers probably want to avoid. Most severely, the court could effectively shutter schools – an option that would be politically explosive if it happened this summer in the weeks before the August primary election.
“Neither the Legislature or the court desire to close schools,” Johnson said.
The man expected to play the biggest role in the drama over school funding next year – Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer – has given few specifics about how he plans to respond.
Colyer will become governor if Gov. Sam Brownback leaves to become ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. No timeline has been set for Brownback’s confirmation, but it is anticipated that will occur sometime this fall.
That would put Colyer in the position of choosing whether to sign or veto school finance legislation – and any possible tax measures that might come with it.
“This is a complex issue,” Colyer said in a statement. “Success should be measured in outcomes for our students. In the weeks ahead, I will be listening to educators, parents, experts and business leaders, and engaging with the legislature as we work to address the Gannon ruling.”
Some lawmakers are openly frustrated by the court’s decision. House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said the justices had failed to “recognize and respect the will of the people and those whom they have elected.”
The decision pitted “school finance against the process designed to fund it,” he said.
The Truth Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers, in a statement called the court’s opinion “unsurprising as it is absurd” and that it would ensure the litigation continues indefinitely. The justices appear to want a “pie in the sky” funding level, the lawmakers said.
Short of ignoring the court – which could lead to the closure of schools -- the Legislature has limited options to fight back.
Passing a constitutional amendment restraining the court’s ability to review school finance in the future is one option. But it would ultimately require voter approval, injecting a volatile new element into an election year.
Another option would be to oust justices by campaigning against their retention. But no justice will appear on the ballot in 2018.
Wolfe Moore argues ignoring the court is not a viable option. While she doesn’t know how much funding will be needed, she said the Legislature must respond.
“I don’t believe there’s a choice here. I believe we have been told by the Supreme Court – we pass laws, their job is to interpret,” Wolfe Moore said.
“They’ve interpreted that we are not putting enough money into schools. They have some problem with the equity portion of it, too. We have to fix it.”