Will Kansas' New Law Keep Its Public Schools From Closing?

by | April 8, 2016

By Edward M. Eveld

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has signed a school funding bill meant to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling with potentially dire consequences.

The court said in a February ruling that unless a plan was in place by June 30 to fairly distribute state aid to school districts, public schools could be shut down for next school year.

"The Legislature has acted to keep Kansas schools open, and I agree with its choice," Brownback said in a statement Thursday. "I have signed Senate Substitute for House Bill 2655 because I want to keep our schools open and ensure our students continue to have access to a quality education."

The court will now review whether the measure complies with its order to equalize school funding among wealthier and poorer districts.

The GOP-dominated Legislature overwhelmingly approved the bill March 24. It uses an equalization formula that reduces one type of aid to most of the state's 286 districts, then distributes money back to districts to make sure none sees a reduction in funding.

Republican leaders in the Legislature said the measure satisfies the court ruling because the formula is one approved by the court. And the "hold harmless" provision made it politically and practically acceptable to many lawmakers and school district officials, they said. Overall spending for equalization was held nearly flat.

But critics said the measure won't pass court muster because it uses a less-generous formula for one category of state aid and fails to restore equalization aid to previous levels. Fully funding equalization would have required spending an additional $38 million, they said.

Alan Rupe, an attorney for the school districts in the case called Gannon v. Kansas, said he will inform the court of the plaintiff's position that HB 2655 doesn't cure the equity problems and that it includes provisions giving wealthier districts a boost. Under the bill, school districts can raise local property taxes as a way to bring in more money.

"The state did not eliminate the distance between the districts caused by naturally occurring wealth disparities," Rupe said. "It worsened the disparities and put the districts even further apart."

"They've done the worst possible thing," he said, "They have left the valleys where they are and they have increased the mountaintops. ... I don't think for a minute that creating greater disparity is going to satisfy the court. It's sure not going to satisfy the plaintiffs."

Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican and one of the architects of the bill, said that education leaders testified to lawmakers "that they would like that extra flexibility" that raising property taxes would give them.

But Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said that any benefits from the bill flow north to the wealthy Kansas City-area suburbs, where they can easily raise property taxes to boost their schools' budgets.

"The takeaway of this bill is any new money comes from local property taxes. And if fully implemented and every district takes advantage of that, it's like an $82 million property tax increase statewide. That's just ridiculous," he said.

The Kansas Association of School Boards urged the court to quickly decide whether the new equalization plan is constitutional.

"If the court determines the law doesn't comply with its equity test, we hope legislators will tackle the issue as quickly as possible to avoid a possible closure of schools this summer," said Mark Tallman, the group's associate executive director.

Four school districts -- Kansas City, Kan., Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City -- challenged school financing legislation passed in 2015. The court said in its Gannon ruling that the Legislature's action last year did not comply with constitutional requirements for school funding.

The court ruling in February said the Legislature needed to approve a plan that fairly distributed funds among wealthier and poorer districts, or there would be no constitutionally valid school finance system for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

In defending the bill, Brownback said, "I would remind those who criticized this bill as a 'product of politics' that it is indeed the job of the Legislature to address these issues."

He continued: "The Legislature consists of 165 elected representatives of the people. I do not take their judgment lightly. This bill is the result of a delicate legislative compromise -- one that I respectfully endorse and that the court should review with appropriate deference."

Lawmakers approved the plan in March just before leaving on a monthlong recess. They return April 27 to complete the 2016 legislative session, giving them time to respond to the court's review of the remedy, they said.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt officially filed the state's response to the court Thursday afternoon, submitting 775 pages of documents meant to outline lawmakers' rationale. The court has previously scolded the state for not offering sufficient evidence to back up its arguments in school finance litigation.

"There is clearly no need to order the schools to close, and we are asking the court to act quickly so that worry can be eliminated as soon as possible for educators, parents and schoolchildren throughout our state," Schmidt said in a statement.

Jim McNiece of Wichita, chairman of the state Board of Education, would not say whether he thought the bill would satisfy the court's order to fix equity.

But he expressed hope that the public conversations over school finance would evolve into more of a dialogue about the specific needs of students in the future instead of just the dollar amounts.

"We need to quit worrying about fighting over stuff that isn't helping kids," he said. "Change the conversation to 'What do our kids really need?' not 'What's the least amount of money we can do with the most efficient amount of time?' This isn't widgets. This is kids."

Bryan Lowry of the Wichita Eagle contributed to this report.

(c)2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)