Kansas Supreme Court Gives Legislature a Deadline to Overhaul Education Funding

by | March 3, 2017

By Suzanne Perez Tobias and Dion Lefler

Kansas school funding is inadequate and unconstitutional, shortchanging at least a fourth of the state's public school students, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court sided unanimously with school districts that complained that Gov. Sam Brownback's block grant funding system for schools underfunded their operations.

It gave lawmakers until June 30 to craft a new school finance formula that meets constitutional funding requirements or potentially face statewide school closures.

The court said current funding isn't enough to ensure that all students receive access to the suitable education the state Constitution mandates the Legislature to provide.

"Plaintiffs (the school districts) have shown through the evidence from trial -- and through updated results on standardized testing since then -- 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," the ruling said.

Although the court struck down Brownback's block-grant concept, the governor pointed to the education system and the previous finance formula for struggling schools and students.

"The Kansas Supreme Court correctly observes that our education system has failed to provide a suitable education for the lowest performing 25 percent of students," Brownback said in a statement issued six hours after the ruling. "The old funding formula failed our students, particularly those that struggle most. The new funding system must right this wrong."

Brownback called for "transformative educational reform" and for the Legislature to pass a funding system that "puts students first."

In his annual state of the state speech in January, he proposed expanding an existing program of tax breaks for businesses and individuals who fund scholarships for students to attend private and religious schools.

Meeting the court's mandate will make it more difficult for state lawmakers to fix projected budget deficits of about $1 billion for the next two and a half years.

John Robb, a lawyer representing Wichita and other plaintiff districts, said adopting a new formula that better serves students' needs could cost between $431 million and $893 million, depending where lawmakers set the base state aid per pupil.

"The lawsuit wasn't about the (previous) formula being bad. The lawsuit was about how the formula wasn't funded," Robb said. "Today the Supreme Court has held exactly that. ... The court says kids aren't getting what they're due."

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office defended the state and lost the case, called on the Legislature to enact a new formula and leave "ample time" for the Supreme Court to review it before the June 30 deadline.

"The State's interest in bringing this litigation to an end can best be met by a bold legislative response, enacted swiftly, squarely targeting the constitutional defects the court identified," Schmidt said in a statement. "Today's ruling implies that the main focus needs to be on better educating those kids who are performing most poorly."

He advised the Legislature to "show its work" to demonstrate how its actions will help students "meet or exceed performance standards adopted by the Supreme Court."

The case that led to the Supreme Court decision is called Gannon v. Kansas and began in November 2010. It was filed by four school districts -- Wichita, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Dodge City -- but the decision applies to all school districts.

"We've lost a whole generation of kids with inadequate funding, and hopefully this will communicate to the state how important it is not to lose a single kid, and that we need to do better than what we've done," said State Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, who also serves on the Wichita school board.

'Who do you tax?'

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita and a member of the House Education Budget Committee, said the Legislature will probably have to raise about $1 billion a year either through tax increases or cuts in other services -- or a combination -- to cover the court-ordered increase for schools.

"So who do you you tax?" Landwehr said. "You tax business too much and they don't have to stay in Kansas." The tax plan recently approved by the Legislature, but vetoed by the governor, also would have put a substantial burden on the middle class, she said.

Landwehr, who is chairwoman of the Social Services Budget Committee, said she worries that lawmakers might look to make further cuts there, although those budgets are already getting trimmed.

Medicaid reimbursements for hospitals and doctors and mental-health programs are already being cut by about 4 to 4.5 percent, she said.

"Do you just fund the schools and you don't fund those other services, only for them (the school districts) to come back and sue us again in a few years?" Landwehr said.

Landwehr said she's looking into the possibility of relieving school districts of some of their support costs in areas such as medical and psychological services, with those services to be provided by community health and mental-health departments.

'A Herculean task'

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, called Thursday's ruling "a big victory for schoolkids across Kansas" and said the Legislature should act quickly -- on Monday or earlier -- to begin crafting a new finance formula. Lawmakers are on a break this week.

"For the Legislature it creates a Herculean task because historically, school finance formulas have taken a couple years to draft in a way that gets it right," Ward said.

Any new formula should recognize that "all students are entitled to a public education, all kids aren't the same and some kids cost more than others," he said.

He blasted Brownback's block grant system, which he said was "drafted in a back room" and rushed to approval two years ago.

"I don't think there's any support for that kind of process in this year's Legislature, so I hope we don't waste time proving that," Ward said.

Thursday's ruling comes after a special three-judge school finance court ruled against the state and for the school districts. The state appealed to the Supreme Court.

Last year, the Supreme Court upheld part of the districts' case and agreed that school funding was unfairly divided among wealthy and poor districts. It ordered the state to fix that or face a shutdown of schools on July 1. Lawmakers met in a special session in June and shifted $38 million to comply with the court order.

Lawmakers also turned aside an effort to pass a constitutional amendment stripping the court of its authority over school finance and leaving all school funding decisions to the Legislature and governor.

That kept the schools open for another school year, while justices contemplated the second part of the "suitable" equation, whether the state was providing enough money overall.

That's the "adequacy" portion of the litigation decided Thursday.

Efforts to oust justices

School finance has been a highly controversial issue in the state for the past 20 years or more, repeatedly ping-ponging back and forth to the courts and influencing state politics.

After last year's special session, groups aligned with the governor tried to oust four Supreme Court justices who had sided with the school districts. That would have slowed the case and given the governor the chance to appoint a court majority that might see things his way.

But voters opted in November to retain all the justices who were targeted -- Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and associate justices Marla J. Luckert, Carol Beier and Dan Biles.

Then Democrats and moderate Republicans, running on pro-school platforms, defeated or replaced about two dozen Brownback-allied legislators.

Replacing block grants

Even without the Supreme Court ruling, lawmakers would have no choice but to deal with school funding in the current legislative session.

Brownback and his allies in the Legislature successfully repealed the state's school finance formula in 2015, replacing it with two years of "block grants." That essentially froze funding at 2014 levels while loosening some rules on how districts can spend their state aid.

The idea was the Legislature would have two years to develop a new finance formula.

Those two years are up this year, meaning that the Legislature has to come up with a new formula for funding schools this year or risk shutting down the education system for lack of spending authority.

Unless lawmakers and Brownback restore the former school funding formula, which the Supreme Court had already approved as constitutional, whatever plan emerges from the Legislature is likely to face another round of litigation.

Thus far, Brownback remains staunchly opposed to reinstating the previous school-finance formula.

(c)2017 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)