Kansas School Funding Woes Drag Into Summer

     (CN) — In a much anticipated ruling on the long-disputed “education equity” case, the Kansas Supreme Court found that the state’s legislature did not meet its constitutional mandate to adequately fund public schools, as a “wealth-based” equalization aid formula would cause inequities that disproportionately affect low-income school districts.
     The ruling in Gannon v. State of Kansas was published late Friday afternoon before the long holiday weekend, with the court finding that Classroom Learning Assuring Student Success Act of 2015 violated the equity component of Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution.
     “We must conclude that applying the former capital outlay formula—to calculate supplemental general state aid—creates intolerable, and simply unfair, wealth-based disparities among the districts,” the per curiam opinion states. “The degree of inequity among the districts is too great when considering that [local option block grant aid] has developed into such a major source of basic, and versatile, educational funding.”
     HB 2655 was passed by the Legislature and signed into law this April, before a June 30 deadline to keep schools operating. The court again stayed its order until that deadline to give the legislature one more shot to “treat Kansas students fairly” before facing a court-ordered shutdown, noting that the primary responsibility of the government is to minimize the threat of disrupting funding.
     A “hold harmless provision” in the legislation was found to somewhat mitigate the disparity between districts, but only in a way that was previously found to be inequitable “while actually increasing disparity between the aid-qualifying districts,” the 47-page opinion stated.
     The Legislature had asked the court to consider the different provisions of the act as severable from the others. Although only the equalization aid is still in dispute, the Kansas Supreme Court rejected the severability argument and declared the entire bill to be unconstitutional.
     “The Legislature specifically asked the court to sever and disable only that part of the school funding system that the court thinks remains out of compliance, but the court instead chose to strike down the entire funding system,” said Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, in a statement. “To put the current situation in context, the State of Kansas annually spends roughly $4 billion on K-12 public schools with another $2 billion coming from federal aid and local revenues. At most, what remains at issue in this case is less than $40 million, possibly much less. This struggle between the court and the Legislature is now narrowly focused on less than 1 percent of the overall school budget.”
     Gov. Sam Brownback, also a Republican, echoed those concerns in his own statement.
     “It is unfortunate that the Kansas Supreme Court has put at risk the education of Kansas students and livelihood of teachers across the state by threatening to close schools on June 30,” Brownback said. “The court is engaging in political brinksmanship with this ruling, and the cost will be borne by our students. We will carefully consider the implications of the Court’s ruling and its disregard for the proper role of the Kansas legislature.”
     The Sunflower State continues to struggle with funding services after Brownback-led efforts have drastically slashed budgets in recent years.
     The Legislature is set to adjourn on Wednesday and has not yet signaled if it will stick around to take up the issue. More than likely, a special session will need to be called this summer to ensure that schools open as planned this fall.