Kansas lawmakers have until July 1 to restore balance to public school budgets around the state, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court affirmed a previous ruling that inequities in funding levels between wealthy districts and poorer ones are unconstitutional. But it did not resolve the larger question of whether or not Kansas is providing sufficient education funding overall. Instead, it instructed the legislature to either fully restore funding withheld from poor districts since 2009 or devise some alternative “cure” to the funding disparity.
The case involved an allegation from a student group that the Kansas school budget was both too small and too unequally distributed around the state to meet a 1960s-era addition to the state constitution which requires lawmakers to adequately fund schools around the state. The previous court to hear the case found that the legislature was shortchanging the total education budget by about $450 million, but the state Supreme Court instructed those judges to reconsider the overall budget question using different criteria.
Despite the lingering questions about the overall schools budget, student advocates celebrated the decision about inequities in how the budget is distributed. “All in all, I think you can say it’s a great day for Kansas kids,” said plaintiff’s attorney John Robb, citing the ruling’s requirement that lawmakers work quickly to restore education budgets in the state’s poorest places. Democrats say that the ruling requires the legislature to dole out $129 million in funding to the affected districts.
Republicans disputed that claim and said the court only required that the imbalance among districts be corrected somehow, whether through new spending or other mechanisms. “The court is very clear that it is stating no specific amount that needs to be spent,” Senate Vice President Jeff King (R) told the Wichita Eagle.
The disparities stem from the state’s decision to cancel payments to under-funded districts in 2009 at the height of the budget crunch caused by the financial crisis and ensuing recession. The capitol began holding back the payments it makes to districts with lower tax revenues that struggle to maintain school budgets, eventually dropping total statewide spending per pupil from nearly $4,500 to less than $3,900. School funding cuts were common in the wake of the recession, but Kansas cut its per-pupil spending more sharply than all but three other states. At schools like Kansas City’s Noble Prentis Elementary, that meant doubling the size of the fifth-grade class and replacing ice packs in the nurse’s office with frozen kitchen sponges.
Since then, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) has installed the standard conservative economic policy package of tax cuts for the wealthiest people, spending cuts to public services for the poor, and hollow rhetoric about fighting poverty by encouraging marriage and family values. After breaking a campaign promise to reduce child poverty in the state, Brownback’s Task Force on Reducing Child Poverty issued a report that included only a handful of vague education policy ideas with no mention of funding inequities.
Democrats argue that Brownback’s tax cuts will have to be reversed in order to adequately fund schools. Republicans in the legislature have vowed to fight the court’s orders, however, and some are proposing legislation that would effectively allow Brownback to pack the court with his own justices should he win re-election in November.