Kansas High Court Says Lawmakers Must Increase School Funding

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) – Kansas lawmakers must find more funding for K-12 schools but have until June 2019 to do it, avoiding the risk of school closures, according to Monday’s state Supreme Court ruling.

Gannon v. Kansas, filed in 2010 by four school districts, challenged the state’s distribution of money to public schools. The districts argued that the state failed its constitutional responsibility to properly fund poorer counties, causing rural students to suffer from educational inequality.

According to the state’s constitution, the Legislature must make school funding both equitable and adequate.

In Monday’s 39-page ruling, the Supreme Court determined that lawmakers made progress in its five-year plan regarding equitable funding, but still left open doubts of adequacy. In its per curiam decision, the court noted the Legislature’s “failure to adjust two years of funding for inflation through the approaching 2018-2019 school year.”

The ruling, while narrowing the issue down to adequacy, essentially continues the 8-year lawsuit. Justices will once again determine if school funding is adequate after the close of next year’s legislative session. The justices, however, encouraged lawmakers to act sooner.

“Acceleration is greatly encouraged because 286 school districts must plan for the upcoming school year—districts that serve more than 489,000 students and employ more than 37,000 teachers, over 3,600 other licensed personnel, and over 26,000 unclassified employees,” the ruling states.

In October 2017, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that public school funding was inadequate, but gave the Legislature nine months to fix it. The justices ruled then that the state’s spending formula, largely made up of block grants, did not ensure adequate and equitable education for students in poorer counties.

The Republican-held Legislature previously asked school districts to attain more funding through property tax increases. The districts, however, pointed out that such plans don’t provide sufficient funding due to the difference in property values across different counties.  

Richer districts such as Johnson County, where the median home value averages $268,000, have the ability to raise significant funding through increases to property taxes. In poorer counties like neighboring Wyandotte County, where the median home value is just over $90,000, less money is brought in due to lower property valuations.

Kansas Supreme Court Justices prepare to hear arguments during a session in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Late last year, the Legislature commissioned a study to determine how much funding was needed to bring all schools up to par. The study, which lawmakers assumed would be in their favor, instead estimated up to $2 billion was needed to meet the state’s education funding obligation.

Instead of following the study’s guidance, Topeka lawmakers decided on a $530 million funding package.

In oral arguments made before the Supreme Court in May, the schools’ attorney Alan Rupe used the state-funded study to back up claims that lawmakers failed to do enough.

“The constitution requires suitable funding, adequate funding, and we’re not there yet,” Rupe said.

The school districts argue that lack of funding has hurt education quality in the poorer districts, according to Rose standards, a set of educational achievement standards used to determine if students receive an acceptable level of education.

About 25 percent of students score below grade level on reading and math, including over 50 percent of black students and 33 percent of Hispanic students.

In Monday’s ruling, the Supreme Court warned the state against overreliance on local option budgets, which allows districts to seek raises in property taxes for education funding. The local option budgets were originally intended for extra expenses the school districts might incur, such as uniforms or new technology.

“Creeping reliance on districts adopting LOBs at ever-higher levels to meet their operational needs remains a serious concern,” the ruling states.

Democrat Rep. Brett Parker said in a tweet immediately following the ruling that lawmakers could have avoided the current situation.

“This was both predictable and avoidable,” Parker wrote. “I’m grateful for the colleagues who joined me in trying to avoid yet another losing court battle. It is long past time for #ksleg to do its job & fund schools.”

Legislators have until June 30, 2019 to change the state’s education funding formula.

 

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