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Kansas School Districts: Block Grants 'Even More Unconstitutional' Than Old Formula

Kansas Supreme Court

As the Kansas Legislature begins work, there was a 90-page document filed with the state Supreme Court Tuesday that reminds lawmakers just how difficult their task will be in formulating a new budget.

The plaintiff school districts suing the state over funding of public education filed their response to the state in the adequacy portion of the Gannon case. In it, the districts argued that the current block grant funding of schools is "even more unconstitutional than the one that this Court reviewed in March of 2014.” That's when the high court ruled the previous school funding formula met constitutional muster but was underfunded.

The block grants (referred to in the briefs by its bill number, S.B. 7) was found unconstitutional by a district court panel in Shawnee County.

How the high court will rule in Gannon is the wild card as lawmakers deal with a budget deficit in the current fiscal year and a shortfall of up to $200 million in the next fiscal year that starts in July.

As a reminder, this latest round of Gannon briefs deal with whether Kansas is providing an adequate education under standards adopted by the Supreme Court. The justices already heard arguments on whether the state is providing an equitable education to all Kansas students. Most believe that ruling will come after the legislative session ends in 90 days.

The districts were clear in what they want from the court when it comes to adequacy. “Because Kansas public education has been underfunded for far too long, justice requires an immediate remedy to the State’s continued efforts to avoid its constitutional obligations,” the brief argued.

It appears schools are urging the justices to come up with a dollar amount to remedy the problem, something the high court has been reluctant do to in the past.

That number could be big. The district court panel suggested it could take $500 million more to align school funding with the state Constitution.

The brief filed late Tuesday responds to arguments made by the state in November. At that time, the state's two main points were that the courts have no business in deciding school funding and the Legislature should be given great deference around the enactment of the block grants. "This Court should not allow a small number of school districts to second guess the Legislature’s reasoned judgment," the state's brief reads. 

However, the districts vigorously attacked the argument that the block grant legislation was well reasoned. “It was hastily put together, released on a Friday evening, scheduled for hearing on a Monday morning, and forced through the House via a two hour final-action vote (only after a state plane was deployed in an attempt to find a 'yes' voter),” according to the brief.

The state has also claimed that increased funding plays little role in educational outcomes. Again, the district's brief sharply disagrees. “The State’s actions have significantly slowed – and in some cases stopped or reversed – a previous pattern of steady and substantial increases.”

There will be one more adequacy brief filed later this month. Both sides will then wait for the justices to schedule oral arguments, probably in the spring.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter, @samzeff.

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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