Education

Kansas Supreme Court Orders Lawmakers To Fix School Funding That’s Biased Against Poor Districts

CREDIT: Orlin Wagner

Gov. Sam Brownback talks during an interview at his Statehouse office in Topeka, Kan.

Kansas’ temporary school funding law is biased against poorer school districts, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday, aligning with a lower court’s decision.

The ruling was the result of a lawsuit from four school districts that cited “wealth-based disparities” as the reason for poorer school districts’ insufficient school funding. The state’s 2015 block grant funding law, which was meant to be a temporary fix replacing a per-student formula to provide more stability in school funding, actually left poorer school districts with a $54 million shortfall, the lawsuit argued, according to the Courthouse News Service.

The court decision outlines the problems with the block grant funding bill, such as its retroactive reductions in capital outlay and local option budget equalization aid, which are used to figure out districts’ aid in 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. That would mean losses in aid would affect the next two fiscal years, exacerbating poor and wealthy districts’ funding gaps, WIBW, a Topeka, Kansas television news station explains.

This is only the latest salvo in a case over Kansas education funding, Gannon v. State, that has been going on since 2010. In 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court found unconstitutional disparities between school districts and gave legislators a July 1 deadline to address them. The court gave more priority to the issue of equity of funding over inadequate per pupil funding across the state.

Although a lower court said legislators should raise the base of per-pupil spending from $3,838 to $4,492 — costing the state $437 million — the court said the amount itself should be considered alongside outcomes of funding. The decision states “curing of the equity infirmities may influence the (district court) panel’s assessment of the adequacy of the overall education funding system,” according to Kansas.com.

In this latest development, state legislators need to find a way to constitutionally fund schools by June 30. Only last week, lawmakers were considering bills that might address the $200 million deficit in the state budget, and if a new system is not in place by then, there won’t be any system to aid K-12 schools, according to the Fort Scott Tribune.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed a notice to appeal the decision on Friday. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) said the decision was a violation of the court’s constitutional authority. Brownback has had a difficult relationship with the courts, as he has tried to take power from the judicial branch over his governorship. The governor has threatened to defund the entire judiciary system if it rules against him.

“Kansas has among the best schools in the nation and an activist Kansas Supreme court is threatening to shut them down,” Brownback stated after the decision. “We will review this decision closely and work with the Legislature to ensure the continued success of our great Kansas schools.”

Some Kansas school district officials are worried that only looking at equity versus adequate funding could mean their schools will receive less funding and make matters worse.

Major school districts across the country are facing major budget deficits and possible bankruptcy, such as Detroit Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, and Los Angeles Unified School District. Other states also have lawsuits regarding equitable and adequate education funding. A lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Education brought by seven parents, six school districts, and the NAACP in 2014 argues the state’s funding system discriminates against children based on location and the wealth of their communities. Earlier this month, the Alliance for a Better Utah said it intended to sue the state due to what it calls inadequate funding levels and lawmakers in South Carolina have to come up with a solution to provide an adequate education for rural students by the end of the 2016 legislative session as a result of a decades-long lawsuit.