Government & Politics

Kansas school funding still inadequate, Supreme Court says

The Kansas Supreme Court on Monday issued its sixth decision in the Gannon school finance case. Above are Justices Eric Rosen (from left) and Marla Luckert, and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss.
The Kansas Supreme Court on Monday issued its sixth decision in the Gannon school finance case. Above are Justices Eric Rosen (from left) and Marla Luckert, and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Monday that a new school funding plan is still inadequate, but gave the Legislature another year to fix it.

"The State has not met the adequacy requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution," the court ruling said.

But if lawmakers add money to compensate for inflation, Kansas “can bring the K-12 public education financing system into constitutional compliance," the court said.

That heads off the possibility of a school shutdown this year and gives school districts certainty about funding for the upcoming school year. But it also renewed calls for a constitutional amendment in an effort to end the school finance litigation once and for all.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a statement that "compliance with this order will require the Legislature to appropriate significantly more funding starting next year."

"I continue to believe that Kansans should be given the chance to vote on a constitutional amendment to indicate whether this litigation-driven funding system is really how they want school-funding decisions to be made," Schmidt said.

The ruling is the latest in the so-called Gannon case, a long-running legal dispute between a Legislature that claims it provides plenty of money for schools and school districts that argue they don’t get enough to provide a good education.

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Legislature must meet two tests to satisfy a state constitutional mandate to provide “suitable” education funding:

It must be adequate, meaning that there’s enough total money in the system for schools to provide a quality education.

And it must be equitable, meaning that state resources are allocated to give poor children the opportunity to obtain an education of roughly similar quality to what’s provided in wealthy districts.

The court ruled Monday that the Legislature has met its responsibility to equitably distribute funding.

Lawmakers this year passed a package to phase in an increase of about $522 million in school funding over the next five years.

John Robb, an attorney for the school districts, said the court found the new five-year funding plan unconstitutional because it did not account for inflation after this year.

Robb's team argued that inflation costs Kansas school districts about $97 million a year. The state's attorneys put the estimate at $50 million to $60 million a year.

"I think we're making progress. It's just not as quickly as anyone would like," Robb said.

"The amount of money in the plan for this year is a good down payment on the system, but the Legislature must address inflation . . . to get a constitutional system."

In contrast to earlier court opinions, Monday’s ruling extended an olive branch to the Legislature and complimented lawmakers on making an attempt to correct constitutional deficiencies.

While some constitutional issues remain, the opinion lets stand three current state laws governing funding through the upcoming school year.

“This action acknowledges the State's position — that the 2018 legislature's efforts and the amount of money added for the approaching school year should permit such an extension through the 2019 regular legislative session,” the ruling said. “We have confidence the legislature can again meet its constitutional duty.”

To come into long-term compliance, the Legislature will mainly have to adjust its existing funding plan for inflation, the court ruling said.

Lawmakers also will have to clear up some ambiguity in the amount of state aid to be set aside for online virtual schools, the ruling said.

“I think it was predictable and avoidable,” Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat and teacher in Olathe, said about the ruling. “This is why many of us tried to avoid another losing court case for the state of Kansas and public education funding. There were several opportunities to do right by our schools and we just never had enough votes for them.”

The proposed state funding still falls substantially short of the $1.7 billion to $2 billion increase recommended by a Texas A&M expert the Legislature hired to analyze school funding and make recommendations.

Because of the wide divergence between the Legislature and its own consultant, the justices appeared mostly skeptical of the Legislature’s position when the case was argued in court in May.

But in the ruling, the justices decided they didn’t need to evaluate that and other finance studies that have been prepared during the case.

The justices retained jurisdiction over the case, which is important because a final judgment would have required the school district plaintiffs to file a whole new case if they don’t like what the Legislature does next year.

Justices won’t revisit the case again until April 15, 2019, when both sides will have to file reports on whether they think the Legislature has corrected the remaining constitutional issues. The Legislature returns to session in early January.

The Rev. Jeff Gannon, father of two Wichita children for whom the school finance lawsuit is named, got news of the latest ruling Monday afternoon.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but we continue to kick the can down the road,” Gannon said. “We must get more funding into the classrooms. That’s what this lawsuit has been about from the very beginning.”

Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, said the ruling is practically meaningless and holds no incentive for the schools to look at how they’re going to allocate their money to determine what adequacy means to their individual districts.

“This whole education funding issue, it sucks the oxygen out of the entire Capitol,” Lynn said.

Lynn said she’s hopeful the ruling may also help the push to pass a constitutional amendment when it comes to education funding.

“I think as long as we let this go on, as long as we let the court push us around and come over and do our jobs, that it will never be enough money,” Lynn said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, lashed out at the court after the ruling.

“Today the unelected bureaucrats of the Kansas Supreme Court chose to continue with the endless cycle of school litigation, leading us down the road to an unavoidable tax hike," she said in a statement. "When Kansas is on par with Nancy Pelosi’s California for sky-high property taxes and families are fleeing the state, we can thank the Kansas Supreme Court.”

The ruling’s 2019 deadline means whoever is governor come January will face the creation of an adequate school finance formula as one of the first major hurdles.

Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer said he looked forward to building on the Legislature’s work on education.

“We will maintain a sharp focus on sending dollars to the classroom without raising taxes,” Colyer said in a statement.

His top GOP challenger for governor, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, called for a constitutional amendment in the wake of the ruling.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat running for governor, said in a statement that she was “grateful for the court’s work.”

“As governor, I will make our schools a top priority again,” Kelly said. “Instead of focusing on doing the minimum, we will begin to plan and innovate.”

Democratic governor candidate Josh Svaty said that the ruling did not change his goals for education. If elected, he said, he wants a completed budget in March.

“We must continue to invest in our public schools if we expect them to be world class,” Svaty said in a statement. “We need to attract young people to the profession of teaching.”

Cynthia Lane, superintendent of Kansas City Kansas Public Schools, said the ruling validated years of efforts to provide schoolchildren with similar resources and adequate support. The school district is one of the main plaintiffs in the school finance lawsuit.

“I think this ruling is a big step forward,” Lane said. “It truly did validate all the hard work that's been happening over the last many years to try to find where the right place we should be in terms of funding schools.”

Lane said that although funding was not adequate, “courageous” decisions by legislators to rebalance the tax plan meant lawmakers would have revenue to draw on after readjusting allocations for inflation.

Other school districts also issued statements Monday affirming the need for more educational funding and said they would continue to monitor the Legislature's actions.

"We are pleased that the courts will allow districts to remain open and we are appreciative of additional funding for public education," read a statement issued by the Olathe School District. "We will continue to follow the action in Topeka closely through the coming months."

The Shawnee Mission school district said the court's decision "provides further guidance to the state as to the minimum levels for funding an adequate public education in the state of Kansas."

"While this ruling does not appear to affect the funding allocation for the 2018-19 school year, the Shawnee Mission Board of Education will carefully consider both the near-term and long-term effects of today’s court decision on the Shawnee Mission School District," the district said.

Board President Brad Stratton told The Star it was reassuring to see the ruling "prompting the legislature to address the school finance formula at the beginning of the 2019 legislative session and not waiting until the end as in year's past."

Many Democrats in the House had objected to the school finance bill but failed repeatedly to pump more money into the formula during the 2018 session.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the schoolchildren of Kansas were winners after Monday’s ruling was released.

“We’re ready and willing and able to go back to work in January to fix the problem,” Ward said. “I can tell you this, there’s no Democrat vote in our caucus for a constitutional amendment that will deny children the right to a suitable education.”

While a special session could be called, however unlikely after Monday’s ruling, Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a moderate Republican from Overland Park, said it’s fair to wait and give voters a chance in August and November to decide which way they want the state to take the education debate.

“The people will show us who they want and what they want by what they decide,” Clayton said. “And then we’ll better be able to listen to them. So if they don’t vote for me, I guess they don’t want good school funding.”

There is no more money, and the schools shouldn’t get more money until they show they are using it effectively and efficiently, said Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita.

“I think we have until June 30 of next year to pass a constitutional amendment once the people of Kansas finally put an end to this nightmare,” Whitmer said.

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The Star's Edward McKinley contributed to this report.

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