TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court issued a highly anticipated ruling Monday instructing Kansas lawmakers to adopt a more reasonable strategy for increased funding of K-12 public school districts and to prove its plan complies with the state constitution.
The Supreme Court declared lawmakers’ current funding plan unconstitutional and gave the Kansas Legislature until next year to once and for all solve persistent problems with allocation of state aid to public education. The justices took issue with the overall amount the Legislature appropriated, referred to as “adequacy,” and the way it divides up money between districts, or “equity.” The ruling says the state did not prove it was providing enough money or distributing it so districts can provide similar educational opportunities.
The ruling comes in the long-running school finance case, Gannon v. Kansas, first filed in 2010.
Gov. Sam Brownback initially said in a statement he would review the ruling. He then joined Senate Republicans who criticized the court for overruling the Legislature.
“Today’s court decision is yet another regrettable chapter in the never-ending cycle of litigation over Kansas school funding,” Brownback said. “The court should not substitute its decision for that of the Legislature.”
Justices gave lawmakers and plaintiffs until April 30 to submit briefs on a fix. Oral arguments before the justices were scheduled for May 22. The court said it intended to rule by June 30. Exceptions to that timetable would be made if lawmakers came up with a new plan more quickly.
The court’s ruling also criticized the long history of legal action in school finance and concluded, “We decline to allow inadequacy to keep cutting its swath.”
“I think every indication is that we are losing a generation of kids to an underfunded public school system,” said Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the school districts suing the state.
The ruling goes on to say “with that regrettable history in mind” after next June 30, justices “will not allow (themselves) to be placed in the position of being complicit actors in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education owed to hundreds of thousands of Kansas school children.”
Rupe said he read that as a warning from the court that a failure to fix the problem to the court’s liking could result in justices taking stronger actions, such as shutting down schools.
“I think there’s no mistake the court means business,” Rupe said.
Finding adequacy and equity
The court’s ruling did not say how much lawmakers would have to spend to meet constitutional muster. The Legislature has a responsibility under the state constitution to provide school children an education. It passed an increase of $195 million for this year and $292 million for next.
“Consistent with our practice in this case, we decline to provide a specific minimal amount to reach constitutional adequacy,” the ruling says. “To do so would exalt funding over other constitutional considerations such as equity and structure.”
It noted, though, the Legislature’s plan did not meet the level its own research department identified to fund aid per student. It notes the Legislative Research Department estimated the state needed $4,080 per student this year, but the plan only implemented $4,006 in aid per pupil for this school year. Next year, it would rise to $4,128 per student.
The court also pointed to its previous ruling in the Montoy school finance case, when it rejected a 2005 per student aid level of $4,222 as inadequate.
In determining adequacy, though, the court said it would consider whether the plan met a set of standards, called the Rose standards. At oral arguments in July, attorneys for the state argued their funding plan met those requirements.
The state’s high court ruled the previous funding plan unconstitutional in March and gave lawmakers until June 30 to solve the problem. It passed its increase plan in response.
Rupe called for $567 million for this school year and $893 million next year, requiring per-student aid levels of $4,604 and $5,090 this year and next, according to the ruling. Rupe had called the state’s remedy “overwhelmingly underwhelming.”
“The Rose standards are basically vocational-ready or post-high school education-ready, so getting kids ready to compete in the workforce, or having them be college ready once they graduated from high school,” Rupe said. “It requires skills in sciences, health, obviously math, reading, the kind of things that we want in an educated workforce or in our kids heading off to college.”
Rupe said his argument for $893 million was based on a request by the Kansas State Board of Education for that amount.
The state had argued its smaller increase was based on the Rose standards and that the board’s larger request was not. Board members took issue with that. They said their request was based on those standards.
The court also ruled the new formula is not equitable. According to the ruling, equity requires “school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.”
Lawmakers had modeled their funding distribution on an old school finance formula Brownback scrapped in favor of block grants, but the court took issue with some of the provisions of the formula, including the reliance on local tax funds.
“While this overall increased flexibility can hold many advantages for the local school boards when making spending decisions, it can also cause concerns if it creates or increases wealth-based disparities,” the filing says.
The partial dissents
While supporting the majority’s perspective that state financing of public education was inadequate and inequitable, three justices signed partial dissents.
Justice Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen jointly dissented in regards to the court’s deadline for a remedy to the constitutional breach.
The two justices said they would prefer a fix be submitted to the Supreme Court by the end of 2017, which would require Brownback, or his replacement as governor, Jeff Colyer, to call a special session of the Legislature to develop a plan and nail down a strategy for mid-year adjustments in state aid.
In addition, Johnson and Rosen said, waiting until 2018 for the executive and legislative branches to act wouldn’t necessarily produce a better solution.
“The majority’s observation that the Legislature’s provision for public school financing has been constitutionally deficient in 12 of the last 15 years serves to highlight the fact that Kansas has failed an entire generation of its children,” their dissent said. “The majority’s historical recitation belies the notion that we can expect anything other than a last-minute submission that will need revision, or at least refining, to pass constitutional muster.”
Justice Dan Biles, who previously served as general counsel to the state Board of Education, also concluded the contents of Senate Bill 19 approved by the 2017 Legislature and signed into law by Brownback failed both adequacy and equity requirements of the Kansas Constitution.
Biles agreed to stay the mandate on overall funding adequacy until June 30. He opposed the decision to allow features inequitable to less-wealthy school districts to remain operational an entire school year, because the immediate focus “should be to achieve fairness for all Kansas school children regardless of where they live.”
“I would have promptly enjoined their implementation before school district budgets were finalized,” Biles wrote. “To be sure, impatience comes naturally for all concerned in this protracted Gannon litigation. But, for me, pique turns into intolerance when considering the state’s repeated failures to get equity right.”
Rupe said he would have favored an end-of-year deadline for a new plan.
Another school funding formula
The Supreme Court’s previous ruling on school finance in March threw a wrench into an already difficult legislative session. Kansas lawmakers had started work to roll back Brownback’s signature income tax cuts after years of budget shortfalls. They took until June to pass a school funding plan and override his veto to pass a tax increase expected to bring in $1.2 billion in two years.
Another school finance formula could require further tax increases. Some lawmakers called for a special session following the court’s announcement.