By Dion Lefler

Tribune News Service

WICHITA -- A three-judge school finance court ruled Tuesday that current funding of schools is inadequate under the state Constitution.

Acting on earlier direction from the state Supreme Court, the three-judge panel concluded current funding falls short of what are called the "Rose standards," a multi-part test for adequacy of school spending outlined in a Kentucky case and adopted by courts across the country.

"We find the Kansas public education financing system provided by the legislature for grades K-12 -- through structure and implementation -- is not presently reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the Rose factors," said the court's decision, released shortly after noon Tuesday. "As we have analyzed, it is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence presented or proffered to us."

The court wrote of the need for a "bright-line" amount of school funding but did not specify an amount to add to base state aid to reach it.

"We caution here we are not directing an exact BSAPP figure nor are we directing any exact method to any funding, but rather only noting parameters which should be considered in formulation to avoid unconstitutional results," the ruling said.

The court did offer the Legislature some possible fixes, however, noted John Robb, the attorney for Schools for Fair Funding, the group that represents the plaintiff districts.

The state could increase base state aid per pupil to $4,654 from its current level of $3,852 and also increase weightings in order to meet the constitutional requirement. Or it could leave the weightings untouched and raise base aid to $4,980.

These fixes would cost between $548 million and $771 million a year, Robb said. "I think they're just telling the Legislature that if you do this, the problem will go away."

Robb praised the ruling as a great victory for Kansas kids and said that it confirms that a decades-long problem of underfunding schools continues to persist.

The ruling is certain to be appealed.

Gov. Sam Brownback said in a statement that he was "still digesting the full implication of the district court's 116-page ruling. I continue to believe that restructuring the school funding formula and implementing education policy reforms is critical not only to getting more money into our classrooms but also improving student achievement. I will be working with legislative leadership to address the best path forward."

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said in a statement that the ruling confirms that "the school finance formula is not broken, it is underfunded. Governor Brownback's largest cut to K-12 funding in Kansas history is threatening the quality of education our children are receiving wherever they may reside in our state."

If upheld on appeal, the court decision would provide ranges and options for the Legislature to consider.

The decision could ultimately require the addition of hundreds of millions of dollars in school funding, even as lawmakers face a $648 million budget deficit for next year.

Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, said Tuesday afternoon that he had not yet had a chance to thoroughly parse the decision but noted that an order for more school funding poses a challenge as the state grapples with its budget hole.

"I can say it will be difficult to find additional moneys," said Abrams, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

The decision notes that the state faces a "self-imposed fiscal dilemma ... both with or without this opinion."

Robb said the state's budget shortfall may be a political barrier, but is not an excuse for lawmakers to not provide more funding for schools.

"The constitution does not say that kids are entitled to an adequate education only if there's enough money in the checkbook," Robb said.

Incoming House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs said in a statement that Gov. Sam Brownback "talked a good game" on school funding while campaigning for his re-election in November and now it's time for him to "ante up."

"Kansans never needed a court ruling to know that Governor Brownback's education cuts have had a devastating impact on our communities and our economy," the statement said. "Parents, teachers, and local leaders have struggled with higher fees, programs cuts and growing class sizes for far too long."

Dave Trabert, the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Wichita, blasted the decision.

"This ruling willfully ignores a long list of facts that disprove school districts' contentions," said Trabert, a member of a state commission on school spending and an outspoken critic of the notion that more money is required to improve student outcomes.

"The judges essentially dusted off their original decision that was rejected by the Supreme Court and added some new legal jargon attempting to justify their original action in arriving at what is little more than a political decision," Trabert said.

The judges were also critical of the way that the Legislature uses locally generated property tax funds known as the local option budget to prop up school districts' base budgets.

"One cannot classify the school financing structure as reliably constitutionally sound because the legislature has tied its constitutional duty to the unenforceable precept, yet parochial illusion, of local control and local funding choices as one linchpin for the assurance of constitutionally adequate funding," the ruling said.

The judges ruled that even though some districts are using local option budget money to backfill the cost of basic education, it was instead intended to pay for extras beyond constitutionally required funding.