Kansas school funding fight far from over

Joyce Eisenmenger Morrison, the communication director for Schools Fair Funding, talks about the Kansas Supreme Court ruling regarding school finance on Friday, March, 7, 2014, in Topeka, Kan.  (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal, Chris Neal)
Joyce Eisenmenger Morrison, the communication director for Schools Fair Funding, talks about the Kansas Supreme Court ruling regarding school finance on Friday, March, 7, 2014, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal, Chris Neal)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court has settled some immediate issues over public school funding, but it left for another day the biggest issue — how much more money, if any, legislators must spend on education.

Attorneys for the plaintiff school districts and parents, along with the state’s largest teachers union and Democrats, immediately seized on Friday’s ruling as a declaration that Kansas needs to boost education funding by as much as $1 billion or more.

“We’re getting close,” said Alan Rupe, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Republicans, including Gov. Sam Brownback and legislative leaders, disagreed and said nowhere in the opinion did the justices put a dollar amount by which legislators must boost funding, only to say that two issues of equity needed to be addressed.

Specifically, legislators must take action to help poor districts cover capital improvements and to supplement general operating expenses. Putting those districts back on par with their wealthier counterparts would cost $129 million a year, but Attorney General Derek Schmidt and legislative leaders said the decision left them with plenty of leeway to try other alternatives.

“The focus has changed,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.

Legislators have until July 1 to act on the equity issue. Adequacy will take longer, perhaps as much as a year or 18 months by Rupe’s estimation.

The Supreme Court gave specific guidance to the same three-judge panel that heard the case in 2012 to use the standards set forth in the 1989 Rose v. Kentucky school finance case as the litmus test. Those standards include preparing students to communicate in a changing civilization, fostering understanding of their government, history and heritage, and teaching the skills necessary for entering the workforce or advancing to college.

Those standards have been considered by Kansas courts in previous litigation, and Rupe noted that he raised that at trial, saying that should be the bar by which funding is measured.

Kansas spends more than $3 billion on K-12 schools, not counting the state’s contributions to teacher pensions, local revenues and federal funds.

The court opined at length about the state constitution, voters and the separation of powers as it relates to education and spending. The justices made clear that no branch of government is above the constitution and the people it governs, citing cases dating to 1876, as well as references to the Federalist Papers and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Marbury v. Maddison affirming the principle of judicial review.

“Simply put, the Kansas constitutional command envisions something more than funding public schools by legislative fiat,” the justices wrote Friday.

Kansas isn’t alone in cutting education spending in recent years, but a national advocate says the state may be among the worst offenders.

Diane Piche, senior counsel and director of education programs at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington, said similar action had resulted in North Carolina and Pennsylvania as governors and conservatives pursue deep tax cuts.

“What happens when you cut taxes, you have less money to spend,” Piche said. “This is troubling because at the same time we’re entering an era where there is a consensus that our education system needs to be ramped up and not watered down.”

She said many states are adopting new standards and will not be met without additional resources. Kansas is one of them, having adopted the Common Core standards for math and reading, which put a focus on the needs of each student and preparing them to be college- or career-ready.

Brownback and Republicans say they will do what’s right for education, viewing it as a core function of government. But they insist they — not the courts — control the purse strings, and that includes decisions to cut taxes to stimulate the economy.

“We need this tax structure,” Brownback said. “Just to be clear, this tax structure is providing more revenue.”

Wagle and House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, say legislators will address the equity issues this session and more spending is likely.

“It’s premature to say what will happen. It’s a work in progress,” Merrick said.

So is the result of Friday’s court ruling.

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