By Edward M. Eveld
The Kansas Supreme Court on Thursday gave the state until June 30 to enact an "equitable" school funding formula or, it said, the state's public schools won't open for the 2016-17 school year.
In its ruling, the court said that if a formula isn't in place by then, the court will decide that "no constitutionally valid school finance system exists."
"Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30," the Supreme Court said.
"Accordingly, the Legislature's chosen path during the 2016 session will ultimately determine whether Kansas students will be treated fairly and the schoolhouse doors will be open to them in August for the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year," the ruling stated.
The ruling affirms a Court of Appeals decision that the state had failed to correct constitutional inequities among school districts in the state's school funding system. The three-judge appeals panel said the state's block grant system had shorted poor school districts by $54 million.
The Legislature switched to a block grant system last year to replace a per-pupil funding formula until it could devise a new formula. But the court said block grants left schools underfunded.
Gov. Sam Brownback issued a statement reacting to the ruling: "Kansas has among the best schools in the nation and an activist Kansas Supreme court is threatening to shut them down. We will review this decision closely and work with the Legislature to ensure the continued success of our great Kansas schools."
But Alan Rupe, an attorney for the school districts that challenged the block grant system, including Kansas City, Kan., public schools, was pleased with the decision.
"It's a win for every kid in Kansas that attends public schools, particularly kids who are disadvantaged and in high poverty areas," Rupe said.
Cynthia Lane, superintendent of KCK schools, lauded the ruling.
"Through this decision, the Supreme Court is making clear that the opportunity for a quality education must be available to all Kansas children, regardless of the zip code in which they live," Lane said. "This is good news, not only for students in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, but also for students and communities across the state."
Some lawmakers didn't appreciate the court's mandate.
"The courts have now interjected themselves in the business of the people and the business of the Legislature," said House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Republican. "They don't appropriate. We do."
Merrick was noncommittal on whether the Legislature could comply with the high court decision by June 30. He said he would meet with Senate leadership and Brownback to determine how they would proceed.
"This is really just a temper tantrum by the Supreme Court saying, 'We're running the show here. Do what we say or we're going to shut down the schools and punish the kids,'" said Sen. Jeff Melcher said, a Republican. "'And we're going to blame you for it.'"
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican, said that while it would have been helpful to give the Legislature more time, the court provided lawmakers a roadmap for conforming to the constitution.
"I appreciate that we do have a timeline and an opportunity to make this right," said Rooker, who had opposed the block grants. "The court is properly inhabiting its role in determining whether the laws passed here in the statehouse meet the constitutional test."
The ruling Thursday came on the same day the House took a final vote on its budget bill, which passed 68-56, and the Senate scheduled its own budget debate.
Brownback and the Legislature were moving ahead with plans to plug a nearly $200 million budget shortfall, plans forged before the Thursday ruling.
In the case at issue, called Gannon v. Kansas, the Kansas City, Kan., Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City school districts claimed the state had not met its constitutional obligation to properly fund public schools.
Gannon was split into two issues: whether overall state funding of school districts was adequate and whether funding was equitably distributed to districts.
The ruling Thursday dealt with the equity question.
The Supreme Court in 2014 ordered state lawmakers to fix unequal funding among districts. Last year, Brownback and the Legislature did away with the state's per-pupil school finance formula and replaced it with block grants for two years until a new formula could be written.
The districts alleged that the state's block grant system was unconstitutional, and a three-judge court panel agreed. The panel ordered the state to restore the funds under the earlier formula. The state appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.
In its ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court said one way, but not the only way, the Legislature could comply "would be to revive the relevant portions of the previous school funding system and fully fund them within the current block grant system."
In oral arguments before the Supreme Court last November, Rupe argued that the Legislature chose to switch financing formulas and to back away from its promise of full funding. The Legislature couldn't provide evidence that the schools were equitably financed across the state, he said.
A "safe harbor" in the dispute for legislators was to appropriate full funding, he said, but "the Legislature chose not the safe harbor. They chose the wilds of the ocean."
The state's funding plan hits disadvantaged and lower-achieving students hardest, Rupe said.
But Stephen McAllister, Kansas solicitor general, said the three-judge panel overstepped its bounds by telling the Legislature to return to the previous formula. Legislators made it clear they wanted a new financing plan, and they are owed deference in that decision, he said.
McAllister said the Legislature acted in good faith when it switched to the block grant system while it decided on how best to finance schools. And lawmakers believed its appropriation represented full funding, he said.
Justice Dan Biles said he was frustrated by that assertion because it was clear the amount was about $54 million short of full funding.
Oral arguments on the adequacy portion of the Gannon case are expected this spring. The price tag in that decision is much larger, with the court to decide whether the state needs to increase total school funding by more than $500 million.
(Bryan Lowry of the Wichita Eagle contributed to this report.)
(c)2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)