By Brad Cooper

Kansas public schools remain under-funded, a three-judge panel said Tuesday, moving the state closer to a budget and constitutional crisis over taxes and state spending.

Kansas public school spending "is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence presented or proffered to us," the judges concluded.

But the Shawnee County District Court panel declined to set a specific figure for adequate school funding.

Instead, it suggested a reasonable floor would require the state to spend at least $802 more per public school student -- with additional funds allocated for at-risk students and other targeted student populations.

The total cost could mean at least $548 million, applying even more pressure on a state lawmakers scrambling to fill a $700 million budget hole brought about deep income tax cuts enacted by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback

However, the court treaded lightly, saying it is up to the Legislature to decide how it would meet it educational obligations.

While recognizing that the state was mired in a "self-imposed fiscal dilemma," the court warned: "Avoidance is not an option."

The court said the case should not be concluded until the Legislature has had time to act and enough time passed to gauge whether schools are funded at constitutionally acceptable levels.

The judges even encouraged the state and the plaintiffs to renew efforts to solve their differences in mediation.

But the case likely will be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court even though it is possible the Legislature could rewrite the current school formula and make the current case moot.

Alan Rupe, one of the lawyers representing the school districts and students who brought the lawsuit, called the ruling "happiness postponed."

"It's a good ruling, but it's part of a process," Rupe said. "Happiness will come the day the kids in Kansas receive adequate funding and a constitutional education."

This is the second time a panel of Shawnee County district judges were asked to rule on school finance.

Almost two years ago, the same panel of judges ordered the state to put an estimated $500 million more into Kansas schools.

But last spring, the Kansas Supreme Court put off a decision about the overall question about the adequacy of school funding. It did, however, order the state to put about $130 million in to education to resolve a funding disparity between rich and poor school districts.

The Legislature last year agreed to resolve the disparity question, but the overall question about adequate funding has been linger for months.

The Supreme Court sent the question about the adequacy of school funding back to the lower court to hash out.

The justices said the lower court should evaluate the question less in terms of dollars and more in whether existing funding mechanisms deliver the mandated educational results.

The lower court was ordered to assess the adequacy of school funding by applying a test established in a landmark education case from Kentucky.

In that 1989 case, the Kentucky Supreme Court outlined seven broad areas for determining what stands for a quality eduction.

Among them were sufficient oral and written communications skills, understanding governmental processes, a grounding in the arts, sufficient academic and vocational skills to compete in the job market and a student's self-knowledge of mental and physical wellness.

However, the Kansas court found that the state was not meeting those standards and would not meet them in the future at current spending levels.

(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)