Kansas Supreme Court Rejects School Funding Again

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) – Despite a six-year fight for “education equity,” the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Legislature’s temporary block grants are constitutionally inadequate, and the state has not yet established base-level funding for its public schools.

Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s massive tax cuts in 2012 failed to provide the revenue boost he predicted, and the state has been drowning in red ink ever since. The projected budget deficit for the next 30 months is $1.1 billion, and Brownback refuses to roll back the cuts which, among other things, cut rates for the richest Kansans by 25 percent, and caused Moody’s to downgrade the state’s credit rating in 2014, exacerbating the effects of the cuts. The tax plan was crafted for Brownback by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

On Thursday, in its fourth ruling in Luke Gannon et al. v. Kansas, the supreme court rejected all five of the state’s technical arguments — lack of jurisdiction, nonjusticiability of a political question, evidence, inadequate findings of fact and law (despite a 21,000-page record), and basic error on whether the system complies with Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution.

“(W)e reject the State’s contentions and affirm the panel’s holding that the financing system is constitutionally inadequate,” Senior Justices Michael Malone and David Stutzman wrote for the court.

They found that the state’s most recent iteration of the Classroom Learning Assuring Student Success Act, or CLASS, which caps funding for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years at 2015 levels, does not resolve the constitutional issue. “In effect, it [CLASS] is merely a fund created by freezing school districts’ funding for 2 school years at a prior year’s level. It also is only minimally responsive to financially important changing conditions such as increased enrollment.”

It also fails to address constitutionally inadequate funding of schools with predominantly African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students.

The court found that “not only is the state failing to provide approximately one-fourth of all its public school K-12 students with the basic skills of both reading and math, but that it is also leaving behind significant groups of harder-to-educate students.”

In sum, the message remains the same as it has been for years: The state must spend more on education, with a special focus on improving the outlook for low-performing students.

Among the factors that led to the court’s decision was that approximately one-half of the state’s African-American students are not proficient in reading and math; one-third of Hispanic students failed to meet standards; and one-third of students who receive free and reduced lunches are not proficient either.

The court also emphasized that the guidelines set out in previous Gannon v. Kansas rulings are minimal standards.

“Whether the legislature chooses to exceed these minimal standards is up to that deliberative body and ultimately the people of Kansas who elect those legislators,” the 83-page ruling states.

In response, Brownback called on the Legislature to promote private schools, or, in his words: “engage in transformative educational reform that puts students first.”

His comments in a press release echoed those of conservatives across the country by invoking school choice: sending public dollars to private schools.

“The time has come to equip parents of struggling students with the power they need to determine the best education for their child,” Brownback said. “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.”

The supreme court retained jurisdiction, and reaffirmed its June 30 deadline for the Legislature to bring its education financing system into compliance with the state constitution, via a new funding formula.

At that time, the state must demonstrate to the court that the formula addresses the constitutional violations, and complies with the court’s previous equity mandates.

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