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Court: KS must increase school aid

1/13/2013

By JOHN MILBURN

By JOHN MILBURN

Associated Press

TOPEKA -- Kansas must increase its spending on elementary and secondary education to comply with state law, a three-judge panel ruled Friday in a rebuke to lawmakers who said cuts to per-pupil spending were unavoidable because of the recession.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback criticized the decision as "disappointing" and said it would force tax increases. Leaders of the Republican-controlled Kansas Senate accused the judges of overstepping their authority.

Parents and school districts had argued the state's funding was unconstitutional, saying the state has failed to live up to its promises to increase school funding as ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2006. They said schools have had to make cuts that have hurt student achievement.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt quickly filed a notice saying his office would appeal Friday's 245-page ruling from Shawnee County District Court. It's unclear how quickly that case would be heard.

"The legislative process is the appropriate venue for debating and resolving issues of taxation and spending," Brownback said in a statement.

Incoming Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican said in a statement the judges had "defied the will of Kansas voters."

In the ruling, the judges barred lawmakers from making further cuts to per-pupil spending. But the ruling also acknowledged the state likely would appeal.

The Shawnee County District Court judges said the spending cuts in recent legislative sessions caused an "unconstitutional eroding" of education funding. They ordered the state to reverse those declines effective with the 2014 budget, which begins July 1, which would raise the base aid per student to $4,492 as required by law. The current level is $3,783 and was set by legislators in May 2012 based on available state revenues.

Kansas allocated approximately $3 billion to spend on schools this fiscal year. To reach the court's threshold, the state would have to allocate an additional $440 million toward schools next fiscal year, even as it faces a projected budget deficit of $267 million. That hole is a result of cuts in individual income taxes that took effect Jan. 1.

"It appears to us that the only certain result of the tax cut will be further reduction of existing resources and from a cause, unlike the Great Recession which had a cause external to Kansas, that is home-spun, hence, self-inflicted," the judges wrote. "While the Legislature has said that educational funding is a priority, the passage of the tax cut bill suggests otherwise."

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by attorneys John Robb and Alan Rupe, who are representing students and school districts, including Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita. They argued despite the 2006 Supreme Court order, achievement gaps remained, dropout levels are high and students in general are completing school "with less opportunity and less education than the generation before."

"I'm just overjoyed for the school kids of Kansas in this deal. The school kids of Kansas have won again," Robb said.

Attorneys for the state didn't immediately comment on the ruling.

Robb said the ruling was at least the third time in the past 20 years the courts have sided with students in requiring the state to increase aid.

In Friday's ruling, the judges set the bar at $4,492 based on what legislators agreed to spend on schools in 2008 following the Montoy school finance court case. Those figures were based in part on studies presented at a trial more than a decade ago. The judges said, as the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 2006, that funding should be determined not by what's available but by what it costs to educate students.

Districts don't receive just the base state aid per student but a greater amount based on the formula, which calculates additional funding based on student demographics such as poverty and English language skills. As a result, districts receive an average of $6,000 to $10,000 per student.

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey said the ruling had little effect on the 2013 legislative session, which opens Monday. He said he hoped eventually the education debate would get beyond finances and litigation.

"We all want to do what's best for the kids. That should be our goal," said Vickrey, a Louisburg Republican.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said he hopes Brownback will focus on ensuring students receive a quality education, not on taking steps to punish the judges for their decision. Lawmakers are expected to consider changing the way judges are selected in Kansas, in part, because of education rulings.

Arthur Chalmers, a Wichita attorney hired to defend the state's position, told the three-judge panel in June 2012 that lawmakers did their best to mitigate the effects on schools of the recession that began in 2008. He argued legislators had to weigh how much money was available for funding all state programs, placing school funding at the top of the list.

The state maintained the recession and declining state revenues meant all government budgets had to be cut. Legislators tried to blunt the cuts by using federal stimulus dollars and enacting a 1-cent sales tax increase in 2010. Chalmers also argued districts had funds at their own disposal, such as those held in reserve accounts or funds that could be raised by increasing local property taxes.