School-Funding Plan in Kansas Needs Reboot

     TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) – The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that a temporary education funding law was biased against poorer school districts, and it ordered lawmakers to fix school funding by the end of June.
     The 80-page ruling honored a clause in the Kansas constitution that requires that the state “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”
     Thursday’s decision sided with a Shawnee County, Kan., District Court ruling stemming from a lawsuit in which four Kansas school districts alleged that their funding had been cut due to “wealth-based disparities” between rich and poor school districts.
     The issue, the state’s high court agreed, lies in each school district’s ability to increase their local option budget at the end of every fiscal school year. A number of school districts decided to raise local mill levies to increase their budgets.
     “Their decisions necessarily meant qualifying districts would experience an attendant rise in state aid, typically because of their increased tax effort,” according to the Feb. 11 ruling, which was penned by Judges Michael Malone and David Stutzman.
     The 2014 legislature amended the funding process after a prior state supreme court ruling in the case.
     “The majority of funding still came from each district’s required 20-mill tax levy. But instead of allowing each district to keep the proceeds from its local mill levy and remit any amount above its state financial aid entitlement to the state, the 2014 legislature required all of the proceeds to be remitted to the state,” the Feb. 11 ruling states.
     In 2015, additional legislation reduced school districts’ capital outlay state aid and supplemental general state aid entitlements, resulting in “immediate losses to the districts receiving those types of aid,” court records show.
     This left poorer school districts with funding cuts, creating a shortfall of $54 million for schools that arguably needed the money most, according to court records.
     The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last week that state lawmakers have until June 30 to fund schools in compliance with the state’s constitution.
     “Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30,” the ruling states. “And because an unconstitutional system is invalid, efforts to implement it can be enjoined.”
     The state’s high court said it is up to the legislature to “determine whether Kansas students will be treated fairly.”
     “The sooner the legislature establishes a constitutional funding system, the sooner this case can be dismissed,” the ruling states.
     Schools in Kansas will face a court-ordered shutdown if the funding system is not fixed by the end of June, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled.
     “In short, if by the close of fiscal year 2016, ending June 30, the state is unable to satisfactorily demonstrate to this court that the legislature has complied with the will of the people as expressed in Article 6 of their constitution through additional remedial legislation or otherwise, then a lifting of today’s mandate will mean no constitutionally valid school finance system exists through which funds for fiscal year 2017 can lawfully be raised, distributed, or spent,” the Feb. 11 ruling states.
     The Kansas City, Kan., school district is a plaintiff in the case. District spokesperson David Smith said in a statement that last week’s decision correctly ruled in favor of equal school funding.
     “I think the decision is a good thing for schools across the state of Kansas. The Kansas constitution demands that schools be funded adequately and equitably. This decision affirms the constitutional demand for equity,” Smith said. “This is something fundamental for education in the state, so I think kids everywhere should be celebrating.”
     But not all state lawmakers were celebrating. Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, said in a statement that he felt the court was throwing a “temper tantrum.”
     “It’s kind of one of those things, ‘Give us the money, or the kid gets it,” Melcher said.
     Judges Carol Beier and Caleb Stegall did not participate in Thursday’s ruling.
     Judge Lee Johnson concurred and dissented the ruling in part, as he didn’t agree with Malone and Stutzman’s findings that the lower court’s original remedy to the state-funding problem was “premature.”
     Malone and Stutzman had agreed in the ruling that, while the lower court’s solution had been to ensure that all districts’ capital outlay state aid entitlements were paid in full, it hadn’t provided future recourse for similar problems.
     “The panel did not order additional appropriations for capital outlay state aid for fiscal years 2016 and 2017,” the ruling said. “Rather, it announced it was ‘rely[ing] on each legislator’s solemn oath of office and respect for our constitutional form of government to provide such [appropriation] authority.'”
     But Johnson said that the panel’s decision was “timely.”
     “I generally agree with the majority’s holdings except for its refusal to affirm and enforce the district court panel’s remedy,” Johnson wrote. “The panel did exactly what we instructed it to do. The remedy it fashioned was timely, not ‘premature.'”
     The Feb. 11 ruling says Kansas’ four-month deadline to fix school funding is “definitely achievable,” citing remedial legislation that was passed in 2014.

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