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Supreme Court takes Legislature to school

Published on -3/16/2014, 5:43 PM

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Policy wonks say the state's K-12 education, or "base per-pupil state aid" formula, is too complex for mere mortals to understand. I disagree. Sacrificing a few details clarifies the formula's overall structure, making more sense of the Kansas Supreme Court ruling in Gannon v. state of Kansas, in which the court held the Kansas Legislature is not meeting its funding obligations.

Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution describes the state's educational duties, stating, "(T)he legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state." In Gannon, the Kansas court applied a test from the Kentucky Supreme Court ruling in Rose v. Council for Better Educ., Inc. (1989). The Rose court found in favor of "(S)ubstantially equal education for all children," adding, "as to funding, we state only that '(t)he General Assembly (legislature) must provide adequate funding for the system. How they do so is their decision.' "

The Kansas Legislature wrote the current formula shortly after Rose, requiring future Legislatures to set a per-pupil funding amount each year. There is a catch: an extensive system of "weighting," so many pupils count as more than one for funding purposes. Examples include students on free and reduced-price lunches, those with special needs, those with higher transportation costs, and so on, each weighted differently. Tweaked repeatedly, these weighting factors add complexity and span many pages.

Multiply the per-pupil amount by the school district's weighted enrollment to reach its annual funding. For revenue, the state first mandates each school district levy at least 20 mills (2 cents) of property tax for every dollar of assessed value above $20,000 on residential property. The state then "tops up" the local money, to reach the amount mandated by the formula. Wealthy districts need less topping up than poor ones, but their residents pay more state taxes, so the formula redistributes wealth. Finally, a controversial "local option budget" is available for districts whose voters elect to raise property taxes above the minimum. However, this "LOB" is capped: Schools cannot raise unlimited extra money this way, and the wealthiest districts do not get additional state money to match their LOB funds, while other school districts do. Much of Gannon has to do with recent changes in LOB budgets, as well as condemning transfers of money from capital outlays (buildings and equipment) to operating expenses, which are supposed to be budgeted separately.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt recommends the Legislature draft a response by July, after their session but before primary or general elections. This might put ruling Republicans in a bind. Funding for low-income school districts might be shored up with money redistributed from wealthier districts, but this would be unpopular in vote-rich Johnson County.

Otherwise, putting more money into the formula means forgoing conservatives' cherished tax cuts, deep cuts to funding for other programs, or both. Plus, the court did not set a specific dollar amount. Outside-the-box options include a new formula, or asking voters to amend the state constitution, stripping the courts of any role in school funding. Let the politicking begin.

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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