Kansas court rules against parts of state school funding law

(AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A district court panel in Kansas declared Friday that key parts of a new state law for funding public schools violate the state constitution.

The three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court ruled that the law fails to distribute more than $4 billion a year so that all children receive a suitable education. The state is expected to appeal the ruling to the Kansas Supreme Court.

The new law scrapped an older per-pupil distribution formula in favor of predictable grants to the state’s 286 school districts based on the funds they received before the law changed.

The law was challenged by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts. They argued that it distributed state funds in ways that harmed programs for poor and minority students.

Details on Senate Bill Seven (SB7) and full text of bill

The four districts sued the state in 2010, and legislators boosted aid to poor school districts last year to meet a Kansas Supreme Court mandate in the case. But the high court returned the case to the lower-court panel to review additional legal issues — including the validity of the new funding law.

Kansas distributes more than $4 billion a year in aid to school districts, but the four suing the state contend it’s not adequate. The same lower-court panel declared in December that the state must increase its annual aid by at least $548 million, but the state has appealed to the Supreme Court.

150626-school-finance-ruling

The new law also cut the aid all districts expected to receive during the current school year by $54 million, or about 1.1 percent, to help balance the state budget. The state’s budget problems arose after slashing personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 in an effort to boost its economy.

The three-judge panel cited those reductions as a reason that key parts of the new funding law are unconstitutional.

Supporters of the new law argue that this year’s cut in aid merely returns the amount to what lawmakers thought it would be last year. They also note that the loss of aid still leaves school districts with far more money from the state than they had during the 2013-14 school year.

But the state’s spending under the new law going forward is far short of the three-judge panel’s figure for annual spending.

The four aggrieved districts also argued that under the new law, the state’s aid won’t be distributed in ways that help poorer districts offer as good an education to their students as wealthier ones.

The districts argue that the law is flawed because, unlike the old formula, it doesn’t automatically provide extra dollars if their numbers of students grow or if more students need programs because they’re drop-out risks or learning English.

The three-judge panel labeled the move to grants “pernicious.”

To read the entire ruling click here: 2015-06-26-Gannon-Block-Grant-Funding

KSN reached out to USD 265 to learn more about the ruling, and in particular, what the block grant meant for public schools in Goddard.

“We’ve had an increase in enrollment for over 30 consecutive years,” said Dr. Justin Henry, the Superintendent of Goddard Public Schools. “So, how do you just freeze an amount of money, and have an increase in enrollment, then say that’s still okay?”

Dr. Henry says the ruling to base school funding on weighted enrollment makes sense.

“I’m not sure how else you’d determine what the funding going to schools should be, if it’s not based on the needs of students,” he said. “Just having some sort of system that we can depend on, and know that it’s stable and predictable, that’s what students need.”

Figuring out that system and how to implement it, is what attorneys for the plaintiffs in this case say, is lawmakers’ responsibility.

“The court has recognized is that the legislators have what they call a ‘solemn oath of office,’ to uphold the [Kansas] Constitution. The court is hold[ing] the legislature and the governor accountable for not living up to that Constitutional responsibility,” said Alan Rupe, an attorney representing schools.

Representatives of Schools for Fair Funding say that it is state law, outlined in K.S.A. 72-64c03, that no matter how lawmakers proceed, state aid for educating Kansas children,

“…shall be given first priority in the legislative budgeting process and shall be paid first from existing state revenues.”

“In terms of what the legislature needs to do if they don’t raise additional resources… What they’ll have to do is figure out what where the money [$54 million] can come from, that is not obligated to be spent on kids in public education,” explained Rupe. “I think the only alternative is to look at other ways to increase resources, or to look at other money the state is spending and make sure it’s directed towards kids.”

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