Kansas Supreme Court Says School Funding Still Unconstitutionally Low
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 2 with additional information.
The Kansas Supreme Court on Monday struck down the state’s aid to schools as unconstitutionally low — and unfair to poor school districts in particular. The decision could pressure lawmakers to increase school funding by hundreds of millions dollars.
In June, Kansas lawmakers passed a new school finance formula that included an infusion of nearly $300 million by 2019. The question now, justices wrote, was whether Kansas had shown this complies with the Kansas Constitution.
“We hold the State has not,” they said, even if the formula “makes positive strides.”
Read the latest Kansas Supreme Court ruling in Gannon v. Kansas.
The need for more education spending will likely force lawmakers into yet more difficult conversations about tax policy. This summer the Legislature wrapped up a 114-day session — a tie for the state’s longest ever — that revolved around the fate of Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature 2012 tax cuts.
That political fight ended when, after multiple attempts at a resolution, lawmakers overrode a veto from the governor and hiked taxes over the next two years to dodge a $900 million deficit and increase aid to schools.
Monday's ruling requires lawmakers to pass legislation to fix the situation by April 30, which is the deadline for the state to file a legal brief in defense of that new legislation. Oral arguments are scheduled for May 22, and the state Supreme Court will issue its next ruling by June 30.
The justices pointed to the history of litigation against the state, saying courts had found funding for Kansas public schools insufficient for 12 of the past 15 years, even before Monday’s decision.
“We will not allow ourselves to be placed in the position of being complicit actors," they wrote, "in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education owed to hundreds of thousands of Kansas school children.”
‘Not going to happen’
Republican legislative leaders including Senate President Susan Wagle expressed consternation about the ruling in a joint statement.
“This ruling shows clear disrespect for the legislative process and puts the rest of state government and programs in jeopardy,” the statement said. “Senate Republicans remain committed to providing every Kansas student with an exceptional education, however, raising taxes to fund this unrealistic demand is not going to happen.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley urged lawmakers to appoint a special panel to begin crafting a fix as soon as possible.
“Today’s decision once again validates what I have been saying throughout the school finance litigation,” he said. “We cannot wait until the 2018 session to remedy these constitutional violations.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward called the ruling “no surprise.”
“The Democratic caucus is ready to get to work immediately” on a new formula, he said.
In a statement released late Monday, Brownback called the decision "another regrettable chapter in the never ending cycle of litigation over Kansas school funding."
"The court should not substitute its decision for that of the legislature," he said.
Some Democrats had speculated the court would order a fix sooner than next spring or summer, making a special legislative session necessary. But Monday’s ruling means lawmakers can pass legislation during their next regular session, which starts in January 2018.
During this year’s session, lawmakers were under court pressure to increase funding for schools. The new school finance formula that they passed in June was designed to increase annual aid by $293 million over the next two years — with most of that increase coming this school year — and to tie funding to inflation after that.
Lawmakers were divided at the time over whether this amount would satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court, which in March struck down the state’s previous school finance scheme as unconstitutional.
The state’s lawyers argued in court that it should be enough, but plaintiffs pushed for three times as much.
The justices not only concluded the $293 million boost wasn’t sufficient, they said several details in the new school finance formula were unfair to poorer school districts and taxpayers in those areas.
Among these problems, they cited a provision that benefited only two school districts in the state —Blue Valley and De Soto, both in Johnson County — by giving them dollars to serve more children from low-income families than are actually registered as attending those districts.
Plaintiff schools reaction
Four school districts — Wichita, Dodge City, Hutchinson and Kansas City Kansas — are plaintiffs in the Gannon v. Kansas lawsuit, with dozens more co-sponsoring it.
Dodge City superintendent Fred Dierksen applauded the court’s decision.
“The bottom line is that I want to be able to offer the same education in Dodge City that they’re able to offer in the Kansas City area,” Dierksen said. “I think it goes without saying that we all deserve that.”
Kansas City Kansas superintendent Cindy Lane expressed frustration that schools would not see a resolution this school year. But she was optimistic about the eventual effect of the ruling.
“I am hopeful now with this ruling, as strong as it is, that our legislative body will do what they need to do,” she said.
John Robb, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called it yet another “great ruling for Kansas kids.”
“It shows the courts are going to enforce our constitution and they’re going to insist that the Legislature provide suitable funding,” Robb said Monday. “They keep telling the Legislature what they need to do, and the Legislature sooner or later needs to listen.”
Monday’s ruling was just the latest in a series of decisions over the past seven years in which Kansas courts found fault with the state’s K-12 funding. The various court orders found overall funding inadequate or otherwise unfair to students living in districts with less local wealth as defined by taxable property, a key money source.
School districts had already sued and won a similar court case that ran from 1999 to the mid-2000s and that ended with the state agreeing to increase annual school funding by more than $750 million. The recession hit before the money had been fully phased in, and the plan to do so fell by the wayside.
Instead, the recession sparked hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts. Brownback’s signature 2012 tax cuts and the ensuing state revenue woes in recent years perpetuated the situation.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.