TOPEKA — Advocacy organizations lobbying on education, budget and tax policy made clear Tuesday response of elected officials to the Kansas Supreme Court’s latest school finance ruling will be complicated by upcoming campaigns for governor and elections for the entire Kansas House.
The Supreme Court rejected the school-finance law embraced by the 2017 Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback to address previously identified constitutional flaws in state aid to K-12 public schools. Justices declared the latest two-year, $293 million increase in state funding to be inadequate and inequitable under the Kansas Constitution.
Alan Cobb, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said the Supreme Court’s ruling was premature and would fuel division in a highly charged political environment leading to primary and general elections in 2018. The Kansas Chamber’s political action arm is again expected to be a significant contributor to Republican campaigns for statewide offices and the 125-member House.
“To rule that the new school funding formula that’s been in place barely three months is unconstitutional and that funding is inadequate, but won’t give a specific dollar amount as to what is actually adequate, shows this is simply about politics,” Cobb said.
While the Supreme Court didn’t articulate a precise dollar amount for closing the gap, the justices agreed the state’s legal counsel didn’t prove existing funding provided a suitable education for the state’s 500,000 students. Attorneys for plaintiff school districts argued the law fell hundreds of millions of dollars short.
Complicating the political landscape was passage during the 2017 session of a two-year, $1.2 million increase in income taxes. It was designed to end state budget instability tied to Brownback’s aggressive 2012 income tax cut and softness in the manufacturing, agriculture and energy economy. Legislators’ votes on the tax hike will be a point of emphasis on the campaign trail.
Three top Republicans in the Senate vowed not to allow a tax increase for education in the 2018 session, while House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said the court’s decision jeopardized financing of other basic government services.
Donna Whiteman, an attorney with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the high court set a schedule that anticipated the House, Senate and governor would make a deal on school aid by April 30. If lawmakers fail to deliver, she said, a reading of the Supreme Court ruling issued Monday suggested the court was preparing to force compliance by June 30.
“It would appear from the strength of the language in this decision that the court will not tolerate any further extensions if it’s not addressed this time,” she said.
The Supreme Court’s decision was spawned by a 2010 lawsuit filed by school districts in Hutchinson, Dodge City, Wichita and Kansas City, Kan. The plaintiffs’ lawyers sought a $900 million increase through two years, while the state’s attorneys said a fraction of that amount was appropriate.
The justices’ order left in place $4.3 billion in state funding earmarked for the 286 public school districts in the current academic year.
Kathy Cook, who represents Kansas Families for Education, said the governor and Legislature ought to immediately begin crafting a plan to “finally provide the resources our students need and deserve.”
“The Supreme Court justices once again substituted their personal political opinions for the rule of law and the Kansas constitution,” said Kansas Policy Institute director Dave Trabert, who said the court should have dismissed the suit.
Heidi Holliday, who leads the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, said steps taken by the 2017 Legislature to balance the state’s budget were part of a multi-year effort to restore investment in public safety, health, transportation and education.
“From districts unable to keep the doors open five days a week, to the mass exodus of teachers from our state, to a superintendent sacrificing his own salary because of worries his district won’t make the next month’s payroll, nearly every community has suffered from the state’s budget crisis,” she said.