The Kansas Supreme Court has spoken — again. The state’s schools are unconstitutionally underfunded, a deficiency the governor and the Legislature must correct by the end of June.
The unanimous ruling is no surprise. What should shock us, though, is the fact that 1 in 4 Kansas schoolchildren receives an unconstitutionally substandard education in reading and math, the judges said.
The clock ticks for those students and others as year after year of underfunding creates a cohort of kids cheated out of a quality public education.
The clock also ticks for us. All of Kansas suffers when its children are undereducated.
As it always does, the court left open the question of how to solve the problem. More money must be spent on schools, the judges said, but they didn’t say how much cash would cure the deficiency.
There are clues, though. The rough consensus Thursday: Between $500 million and $600 million more a year would move the state closer to its legal obligations. A new formula is needed, too.
That’s an enormous amount of money. Yet it would still be less than the state spent in 2008-09 on base state aid per pupil, adjusting for inflation. In essence, the court appeared to suggest the state can satisfy its constitutional requirement by returning to the school funding approach it used before Gov. Sam Brownback was elected.
That’s interesting because the Legislature has displayed a keen and understandable interest in turning back the clock to the pre-Brownback days as well.
Lawmakers in the House showed enormous fortitude in February when they approved a two-year, $1 billion tax hike designed to cover projected revenue shortfalls in Kansas. State senators — with a few notable exceptions — displayed similar courage.
The tax bill, vetoed by Brownback, would have largely erased his 2013 tax cuts.
Now legislators need to do more, and the governor should be part of the solution. They must revisit the proposal to eliminate the small-business income exemption, which costs the state more than $200 million a year. They should add back a third income tax bracket and raise the highest bracket to 6.45 percent, the same level it was eight years ago. Some tax hikes on tobacco and alcohol could also be part of the solution.
We are mindful of, and concerned about, the tax burden on lower income Kansans. The regressive sales tax is still far too high. Increasing local budget property tax options might cost poorer Kansans more money, particularly those in rural areas. Any comprehensive tax package must take into account the unfair burden on Kansans who are least able to pay.
That’s why asking schools to contribute, perhaps by using reserves, makes sense. Kansas could ask schools to pitch in, with a promise to repay the spending over a longer time frame. Using reserves would cause headaches for district budget managers but likely would have less impact in the classroom.
What lawmakers cannot do is wish the problem away or waste time lambasting the Supreme Court. Legislators need to fix this problem by June 30 or schools may be forced to close. Every moment spent scoring political points or whining about activist judges moves the state a moment closer to that catastrophe.
Fortunately, voters in 2016 sent lawmakers to Topeka who seem up to the task. The work starts Monday. The clock ticks for them, too.