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Court declares Kansas' school funding levels unconstitutional

Courts and the JudiciaryBusinessFinanceCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemSchoolsSam Brownback

The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the state’s current levels of school funding are unconstitutional, and ordered the Legislature to provide for “equitable funding for education” by July 1.

The long-anticipated ruling was a victory for education advocates in the state, but it may be a short-lived one as the Legislature has vowed to defy court orders on the subject.

The Kansas Legislature began reducing school funding in 2009 during the recession. As part of this reduction, lawmakers began to reduce and withhold payments of state aid, making poorer school districts scramble for adequate funding.

According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Kansas is spending 16.5% less per student, or $950 per pupil, on education in 2014 than it did in 2008.

The lawsuit, Gannon vs. Kansas, was filed in 2010 by four school districts and 31 students who argued that they have the right to an education under the Kansas Constitution. Failure to provide “suitable” funding for that education violated their rights, they argued.

Kansas argued that increasing school funding did not necessarily improve education quality, and that schools were receiving record amounts of money when federal and other funds were taken into account. In the meantime, Gov. Sam Brownback, who is up for reelection this year, passed two rounds of income tax cuts, further frustrating parents who wanted to see more state spending, rather than less.

In January 2013, a three-judge panel ruled on the side of the school districts, saying that it was "completely illogical" for the state to cut taxes while blaming an economic downturn for spending cuts. It ordered lawmakers to raise base state aid per pupil to $4,492 from $3,838. The state of Kansas appealed that ruling.

The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that the school districts had shown that funding reductions hurt their ability to do what the constitution requires them to do: “maintain, develop and operate local public schools.” The reductions in state aid also “established unconstitutional, wealth-based disparities,” the court said.

But the court did not specify any funding requirements, instead sending the case back to the three-judge panel, which must determine whether school funding law is “reasonably calculated” to have all students meet or exceed certain standards.

Lawmakers must provide for equitable funding for public education by July 1, the court said.

Brownback issued a measured statement, calling the decision a “complex” one that “requires thoughtful review.”

“I will work with leadership in the Kansas Senate and House to determine a path forward that honors our tradition of providing a quality education to every child and that keeps our schools open, our teachers teaching and our students learning,” he said, in a statement. In his State of the State address, Brownback called for all-day kindergarten in the state, part of what his administration says is a commitment to education funding.

Brownback’s statement makes Judith Deedy cringe. She’s one of the parents behind Game On Kansas Schools, an advocacy group started during the recession when parents, fed up with crowded classrooms and rising student fees, decided to get involved.

“He says that, and that’s how he gets elected,” she said Friday. “But his token gesture to fund kindergarten is all he’s suggesting.”

Deedy and other parents are concerned that Brownback and the state Legislature will find a way to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling. The Republican speaker of the House said that he did not see the Legislature “going along with what the courts say” in an interview with the Kansas City Star last year.

What’s more, Deedy said, the Legislature is trying to rein in the Supreme Court, putting forth bills that would remove the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of some cases and changing the mandatory retirement age, which would give the opportunity for Brownback to appoint a number of judges, should he win in November.

This is not the first school funding lawsuit in Kansas to reach the Supreme Court; in 2005 the court ruled that the state’s education system was inequitable and inadequate, forcing the Legislature to create a new system for funding. The Legislature made big cuts to education during the recession, though, spurring the new lawsuit.

Schools across Kansas say they’ve struggled to deal with the budget cuts. Richer districts ask students to pay fees for parking, sports, and extracurricular activities, but poorer districts don’t. In one elementary school in Kansas City, a fifth-grade class had 31 students this year, up from 17 last year, after a position was eliminated. The school nurse freezes sponges to use for ice packs, and gym, lunch and music class often go on in the same room, at the same time.

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