Court says school funding unconstitutional
By JOHN MILBURN and JOHN HANNA
TOPEKA — Kansas must spend more money on its public schools, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday in a decision that could jeopardize Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s desire to make his state a tax-cutting template for the nation.
The high court’s ruling, which found that Kansas’ school funding isn’t constitutional, came in a 2010 lawsuit filed by parents and school districts. Instead of balking, Brownback and other leaders of the state’s GOP-dominated government said they were pleased because the decision stopped short of telling legislators exactly how much the state must spend on its schools overall, leaving that responsibility to a lower court.
“It was not an unreasonable decision,” Senate President Susan Wagle said. Republican leaders also believe the court left the Legislature substantial leeway in providing adequate aid to poor school districts and pledged to get it done before the session adjourns in late April or early May.
Education advocates and attorneys for the parents and school districts saw the decision as a rebuke to the GOP-led state and in line with past court decisions that strongly and specifically laid out how much needed to be allocated to provide adequate education for every child.
“This decision is an important one in sending a message to states across the nation that need to reform their financing systems to get their house in order,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark, N.J.-based Education Law Center, which filed a brief in the Kansas case.
The case has broader implications beyond the classroom: Kansas enacted sweeping cuts to income taxes in 2012 and 2013 championed by Brownback that have reduced the amount of available resources to comply with a court order on education funding.
Lawmakers could be forced to reconsider the income tax measures — pushed as a means to stimulate the economy and estimated to be worth nearly $3.9 billion over the next five years. Other Republican-run states have looked at such cuts, including this year in Oklahoma and Missouri.
“If we don’t do something to make sure the revenue is there, then we’re going to be in this continuing morass around school funding,” said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers union, which called on lawmakers to boost total funding immediately.
The court ordered legislators Friday to boost funding on two types of aid for poor school districts — supplementing property tax revenues for general operations and capital improvement projects — by July 1. But there’s no deadline for the lower court to provide overall funding numbers.
Brownback told reporters he does not see any need to reconsider the tax cuts because the reductions are spurring economic growth.
“We need to grow the number of people working in this state,” Brownback said.
John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, saw Friday’s ruling as a victory because the justices rejected the state’s arguments that the funding issue was political, to be determined solely by the Legislature and governor.
He predicted that after the next round of lower-court hearings, the outcome will mirror what happened previously: An order for the state to increase its total annual spending on schools by at least $440 million.
David Morantz, a Leawood attorney and father of three children who attend public schools, said he’s glad the court is requiring lawmakers to meeting their constitutional duties but said, “It doesn’t look like the fight is over.”
“We, as parents and as citizens of Kansas, have to follow the constitution, and it’s not too much to ask, for them to do it, too,” he said.
But Republican officials believe the lower court’s review is tilted more in the Legislature’s favor.
“The order that came down this morning didn’t give either side everything it asked for,” said Attorney General Derek Schmidt, also a Republican. “Essentially, the court adopted a middle ground.”
The Supreme Court sent the case back to district court for more review to “promptly” determine what the adequate amount of funding should be, but didn’t set a deadline for a hearing.
A state Department of Education official estimated the cost of meeting the court’s directives on aid to poor districts at $129 million annually, in addition to the more than $3 billion the state has budgeted for the 2014-2015 school year. Schmidt and top legislators said the decision allows them to consider alternatives instead of adding all of the funds to soon-to-be-debated budget legislation.
Kansas cut its annual base aid to schools by $386 million over several years as tax revenues declined during the Great Recession, although it did cover some rising costs, such as teacher pensions. After the base-aid cuts, school districts trimmed their staffs, cut after-school programs and raised fees for parents. Classrooms also became more crowded.
State attorneys had said legislators did the best they could to maintain education spending among the reduced available revenues during the recession, pointing to efforts to raise the state sales tax rate in 2010 and the reliance on federal stimulus funding to keep spending stable.
A three-judge panel sided with the lawsuit’s plaintiffs in January 2013. The state appealed, and the Supreme Court heard arguments in October.