Kansas high court: School funding unconstitutional

TOPEKA, Kansas (AP) -Kansas must spend more money on its public schools, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday in a decision that could jeopardize Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s desire to make his state a tax-cutting template for the nation.

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The high court’s ruling that Kansas’ amount of school funding was unconstitutional fell in line with past decisions that strongly and specifically told lawmakers how much they had to allocate to provide adequate education for every child.

But the court stopped short of telling legislators exactly how much to spend, giving that responsibility to a lower court. Kansas legislators had delayed any decisions on school funding this session until the high court made a final judgment.

The case also has broader implications beyond the classroom: Kansas enacted sweeping cuts to income taxes in 2012 and 2013 championed by Brownback that have reduced the amount of available resources to comply with a court order on education funding.

Lawmakers could be forced to reconsider the income tax measures — pushed as a means to stimulate the economy and estimated to be worth nearly $3.9 billion over the next five years. Other Republican-run states have looked at such cuts, including this year in Oklahoma and Missouri.

Brownback, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and legislative leaders scheduled a Friday afternoon news conference to discuss the ruling.

“This is a complex decision that requires thoughtful review,” Brownback said in a statement. “I will work with leadership in the Kansas Senate and House to determine a path forward that honors our tradition of providing a quality education to every child and that keeps our schools open, our teachers teaching and our students learning.”

Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat, said they were reviewing the ruling.

The decision reaffirms a promise “that all students share equally in the benefits of a quality public education,” said Wade Henderson of the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, saw Friday’s ruling as a victory because the justices rejected the state’s arguments that the funding issue was political, to be determined by the Legislature and governor.

He predicted that after the next round of lower-court hearings, the outcome will mirror what happened previously: An order for the state to increase its total annual spending on schools by at least $440 million.

“I see that we have to go around the block again,” he said.

A state Department of Education official estimates legislators must increase funding by $129 million, in addition to the more than $3 billion the state has budgeted for the 2014-2015 school year.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to district court for more review to “promptly” determine what the adequate amount of funding should be, but didn’t set a deadline for a hearing. It did, however, set a July 1 deadline for legislators to restore money for two funds aimed at helping poorer districts with capital improvements and general school operations.

Kansas cut its annual base aid to schools by $386 million over several years as tax revenues declined during the Great Recession, although it did cover some rising costs, such as teacher pensions.

A lawsuit was filed in 2010 on behalf of four school districts and parents, claiming Kansas reneged on promises made in 2006 to provide a certain level of funding for public schools. The suit also said students were harmed because spending cuts resulted in lower test scores and affected programs aimed at helping poor and minority students.

In recent years, school districts have trimmed their staffs, cut after-school programs and raised fees for parents. Classrooms became more crowded.

State attorneys had said legislators did the best they could to maintain education spending among the reduced available revenues during the recession, pointing to efforts to raise the state sales tax rate in 2010 and the reliance on federal stimulus funding to keep spending stable.

A three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court said in January 2013 that the lawsuit was valid, and the state appealed that ruling to the high court.

Because no issues involving the U.S. Constitution were raised, there’s no appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

All states have language in their constitutions for providing public school funding. But Kansas’ courts in the past have been strong and specific in spelling out how the state must carry out that responsibility, and education advocates wondered earlier this year whether the push in Kansas to base funding on costs — not political considerations — would continue, perhaps emboldening parents and educators in other states.

The teachers union, The United Teachers of Wichita, is speaking out. UTW President Randy Mousley says state lawmakers have been ignoring court mandates on funding for years.

“They were basically going to give the courts the middle finger because they think it’s not their business,” says Mousley. “Today the Supreme Court… pretty much told the legislature and the Governor, yes, the courts do have jurisdiction over this and school funding isn’t just a political piece that they get to make the sole decision on. And they are going to assert their authority.”

The largest school district in the state, USD 259 of Wichita is also responding. Lynn Rogers, a USD 259 School Board Member, says the fight is far from over.

“It’s now back in the hands of the legislature to see what they are going to do,” says Rogers. “If they don’t, it will go back to the three judge panel. And the judges could rule that the whole LOB and the Capital outlay are unconstitutional.”

If that happens, Rogers says, then the lower courts would likely have to take a hard look at funding on several different levels.

Brownback has claimed that Kansas is leading a low-tax, small-government “American renaissance.” Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature suggested before they convened in January that they might resist an order for more spending.

 

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