Kansas Is Still Starving Schools of Money, Its Supreme Court Says

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) – The Kansas Supreme Court on Monday found — again — that the state’s public school funding is constitutionally inadequate, but gave the state nine more months to fix it.

The justices ruled that the state’s new spending formula, largely composed of block grants, did not go far enough to ensure adequate and equitable education for students in poorer counties.

Justice Lee Johnson wrote a partial dissent, agreeing that the system is “inadequate and inequitable,” but saying the state should be ordered to correct it by the end of this year.

Gannon v. Kansas was filed in 2010 by four school districts, challenging the state’s distribution of money to public schools. The districts said Kansas failed its constitutional responsibility to properly spread money between richer and poorer counties, causing rural students to suffer from educational inequality.

This is the fourth time that the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that state legislators failed to fund public education equitably.

The Legislature this year passed a law that would increase spending by $293 million over two years, but school districts said that still fell $600 million short of is needed to meet educational demands.

The supreme court looked at the dual requirements of adequacy and equity, holding that the state must meet the Rose standards of minimum education while also dividing money equitably between rich and poor counties.

Rose standards derive from Rose v. Council for Better Educ., Inc., (790 S.W.2d 186 (Ky. 1989)), which establishes minimum standards for adequate education.

“More specifically, the adequacy requirement is met when the public education financing system provided by the legislature for grades K-12 — through structure and implementation — is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the standards set out in Rose and presently codified in K.S.A. 2016 Supp. 72-1127,” according to the majority opinion of the three-judge panel.

The court also found that the state failed to show equitable distribution of funding. It rejected the state’s argument that local option budgets, allowing taxpayers in districts to raise taxes locally, helped with equity.

“(T)hat system, through its structure and implementation, is not providing school districts with ‘reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort,’” Senior Judges Michael Malone and David Stutzman wrote for the majority.

While some counties can generate tremendous increases in revenue with small tax increases thanks to high property values, counties with low property values must increase taxes much more steeply to get the same effect.

The panel gave the state until June 30, 2018 to fix the funding formula. It allowed the present, inadequate and inequitable formula to stand for the current school year, preventing possible shutdowns.

State Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, a former teacher, said the ruling will bring much-needed relief to teachers and students.

“We were forced to make cuts to teachers and administration, which increased teacher workload,” Rogers said. “Salary remained stagnant, not even keeping up with the rate of inflation, much less honoring length of service and education. Our students, while receiving the best education we could offer with limited resources, could have been farther ahead.”

Senate Republicans Susan Wagle, Jeff Longbine and Jim Denning issued a joint statement condemning the ruling and vowed to resist any efforts to raise taxes.

“This ruling shows clear disrespect for the legislative process and puts the rest of state government and programs in jeopardy,” the statement said.

Gov. Sam Brownback said his office is still looking at the ruling and would not comment.

Kansas has been struggling economically since Brownback’s record tax cut in 2012, which primarily benefited businesses and the wealthy. He promised it would bring 25,000 jobs to the state, though the federal government reported Kansas actually lost 9,400 jobs in 2016.

The state faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit covering this year and the next.

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