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Court Finds Kansas Block Grant School Funding Unconstitutional

Sam Zeff

On the 114th and final day of the Kansas legislative session, a court ruling feared by lawmakers and eagerly anticipated by most educators was handed down .

A three-judge Shawnee County District Court panel ruled Friday that block grant school funding, one of the signature issues for conservatives in the Legislature, is unconstitutional.

The court ruled block grants violate Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, which requires the state to adequately fund public education. The panel said the law is unconstitutional "both in regard to its adequacy of funding and in its change of, and in its embedding of, inequities in the provision of capital outlay of state aid and supplemental general state aid."

In other words, the court ruled, block grant funding would provide neither an adequate nor equal education to Kansas students as required by the state Constitution.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, which includes the Kansas City, Kansas district, says it's about time lawmakers realize they're going to have to find more money for K-12 public education.

"What part of unconstitutional, Legislature, don’t you understand? They are behaving in a way in which they have been told time and time again they need to fund education to an adequate level," says Alan Rupe of Wichita.

The top Democrat in the Kansas House, Tom Burroughs, says the state should move back to the old school funding system that was replaced with the block grant plan.

“The old formula has been through the system, has been found to be constitutional and it just needed to be funded adequately and equally,” Burroughs says.

The panel did not throw out the block grant idea entirely. The judges suggested block grants would be constitutional if the Legislature provided more money. Specifically, the court said if lawmakers use so-called weighted enrollment rather than actual enrollment, block grants might pass constitutional muster.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR
Kansas City, Kansas Superintendent Cynthia Lane says the district is reassessing layoffs and furloughs after Friday's court ruling. She testified before the Legislature earlier this session.

Weighted enrollment takes into account the extra money needed for special needs students, extraordinary transportation or districts with low property values.

Dr. Cynthia Lane, superintendent in the KCK district, was pleased the court recognized that weighted enrollment is crucial.  “The numbers of students you have and their specific educational needs is a very important factor that must be considered in any finance formula.”

During the trial lawyers for the school districts suing the state suggested that about an additional $26 million would be needed if the weighted enrollment number was used for the block grants.

In addition, the panel ordered the state to make payments to all school districts still owed money from the last legislative session. That could total up to $54 million. The judges gave the state until next Wednesday, the start of the new fiscal year, to distribute that money.

Lane also suggested that if her district receives its portion of that money before the start of school in August, KCK might be able to rescind the layoff notices to 30 employees and cancel scheduled furloughs for next year. "We're going to sit down and reassess the reductions and cuts we had to make to see if we can rethink any of those," she says.

The state is expected to appeal to the state Supreme Court and ask for the order to be stayed while the case moves through the appeals process.

This has been a week of setbacks for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt. In addition to the ruling in the school funding case, a state court on Thursday found Kansas' new abortion restrictions unconstitutional. Brownback also issued statements this week denouncing the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions upholding subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right. 

“We are reviewing the past two days’ opinions internally and with our various clients to assess next steps. Fortunately, tomorrow starts a weekend, and the courts should be done at least for this week with issuing decisions," Schmidt said in a statement late Friday afternoon.

Not long after that statement Schmidt sent a new release saying he's already filed a notice of appeal to take the case to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, issued a very harsh statement. “It appears Washington, D.C. isn’t the only place courts have decided to draft their own laws and ignore the will of the people. Topeka judges aren’t legislators, and it’s time they stopped auditioning for the role in their rulings. I’m hopeful our Supreme Court justices will show more restraint.”

In a statement Friday evening Gov. Sam Brownback said the three-judge panel violated its constitutional authority. "It has now taken upon itself the powers specifically and clearly assigned to the legislative and executive branches of government. In doing so, it has replaced the judgment of Kansas voters with the judgment of unelected activist judges."

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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