Court Orders Kansas Legislature to Spend More on Schools
By TREVOR GRAFF and JOHN ELIGON, NY Times | http://nyti.ms/1ikxVuR
Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, pictured at an elementary school in January, praised Friday’s ruling for not setting an exact dollar amount that must be spent to create equality among the districts. Credit Craig Hacker for The New York Times
MARCH 7, 2014 :: TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas’s highest court ruled on Friday that funding disparities between school districts violated the state’s Constitution and ordered the Legislature to bridge the gap, setting the stage for a messy budget battle in the capital this year.
With its ruling, the State Supreme Court averted, for now, a larger constitutional showdown by ordering a lower court to reconsider the most controversial part of the case — whether the public school system statewide was adequately funded. The lower court originally ordered an increase of more than $400 million in school spending, and the conservative-led majority in the Legislature had vowed to defy that order if it were upheld. Legislators said it was the job of lawmakers, not judges, to appropriate money.
Still, the unanimous court decision Friday would seem to leave some Republican lawmakers in Kansas unsettled because it orders them, by July 1, to potentially appropriate tens of millions of dollars in payments to poorer districts to make the school system more equitable. The Legislature had been withholding those constitutionally mandated payments in recent years.
The issue of increasing base aid per student was politically charged because at the same time that lawmakers, led by the Republican governor, Sam Brownback, refused to increase funding, they passed the largest tax cuts in state history.
“I think the bottom line is that you still have a constitutional issue here as to which branch has the power of the purse,” said State Representative Kasha Kelley, a Republican who is chairwoman of the House Education Committee. “And clearly that duty lies with the legislative branch. I don’t believe that’s the place of the court.”
The court rejected the contention that it lacked the authority to make decisions on school funding, saying that it has the duty to determine whether legislative acts comply with the Kansas Constitution. “The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore or waive this duty,” the decision said.
Most of the attention in the case, Gannon v. Kansas, had been focused on the trial court’s order to raise base aid per student to $4,492, a 17 percent increase over the current level, to provide an adequate education for all Kansas students. On Friday, the Supreme Court held that the district court had not applied the proper standard to determine what constituted an adequate funding level and asked the lower court to re-examine that issue.
“Regardless of the source or amount of funding, total spending is not the touchstone for adequacy in education” under the State Constitution, the decision read.
Mr. Brownback and his fellow Republicans who are legislative leaders cast that point as a victory during a news conference at the Capitol on Friday afternoon. “It says schools should be measured by performance and outcomes, not by just money spent,” Mr. Brownback said. “It focuses on equity — that a child in the poorer part of the state should have an equal opportunity at an education as someone from the richer part of the state, and I agree.”
But divorcing money and outcomes was off the mark, said John S. Robb, the lawyer for the school districts that sued the state. “Outcomes are all that matter, but it takes resources to get there,” he said.
The standard that the Supreme Court asked the lower court to use when it reconsiders whether there is adequate statewide funding accounts for the fact that money produces adequate educational outcomes, Mr. Robb said. So he was confident that the district court would reach the same result and again rule that base aid per student needed to be increased.
Mr. Brownback and his allies praised Friday’s ruling for not setting a specific dollar amount that must be spent in order to create equality among the districts. The court held that the Legislature had to provide equitable funding “as contemplated by present statutes.”
“I don’t know that we have a number for that, and we aren’t going to restrict ourselves,” said Susan Wagle, the Senate president.
But Mr. Robb said the formula the state previously used for those supplemental funds for poor districts had totaled nearly $120 million. It would be difficult to see the court allow anything less than that, he said, because that formula was what the judges used when deciding the case.
“It takes a willing Legislature to comply with this order,” Mr. Robb said. “I am confident they will follow their constitutional oaths and do what’s right for kids.”
In 2005, the court approved an agreement to gradually raise per-pupil spending, but the goals were never reached because of the nationwide recession and, more recently, the tax cuts.
In arguing the case last year, lawyers for the state asserted that it was unreasonable to restrict the Legislature’s role in making financial decisions. The Kansas Constitution is “neither a suicide pact nor a bankruptcy pact,” Stephen R. McAllister, a lawyer for the state, told the court.
In January, with the justices sitting nearby, Mr. Brownback essentially fired a warning shot during his State of the State address, saying that “the Constitution empowers the Legislature, the people’s representatives, to fund our schools,” and that the state should ensure that “our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else.”
Moderate and liberal legislators have said the case has highlighted the failure of the state to provide an adequate education for Kansas children.
For critics of legislative leaders and the governor, the shortfall in school funding provides fodder for a broader criticism of the path Kansas officials have set the state on. In the past two legislative sessions, the Legislature, backed by Mr. Brownback, passed tax cuts that are projected to decrease state revenue by about $3.9 billion over the next six years.
Those who believe the courts overstepped their bounds in previous rulings by mandating a dollar amount said lawmakers and schools needed to focus on efficient spending, rather than a pure dollar figure.
The debate over school funding in Kansas heated up in the 1960s when the Legislature added an article to the Constitution that read, “the Legislature shall make suitable provision for finance” of public education. That led to a court case decades later that ended with lawmakers agreeing to provide $4,492 in base aid per student.
But because of the nationwide financial crisis, the Legislature never reached that level of spending. It went as high as $4,400 by the 2008-9 school year, but under Gov. Mark V. Parkinson, a Democrat, the figure began a downward slide, which has continued under Mr. Brownback. The figure is now $3,838, and Mr. Brownback called for maintaining it in a budget proposal he released in January.
The reduction in school financing over the years led to the current lawsuit. A state appeals court ruled in January 2013 in favor of the plaintiffs, saying that the Legislature was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund schools.
Fiscal conservatives argue that the base state aid does not represent the actual amount spent on education. Including federal sources, the amount was $12,656 in 2011-12. Those in favor of increased funding said that figure included money for things like pensions that are not directly related to helping students learn.
- Trevor Graff reported from Topeka, and John Eligon from Kansas City, Mo.
Court declares Kansas' school funding levels unconstitutional
By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/O69nfC
March 7, 2014, 10:21 a.m. :: 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.
According to IA REPORTS [http://bit.ly/1in5HUH] Kansas spent $10,115 per student in 2011, #22nd in the nation. California spent $8,378 that year, 44th in the nation.
- As you see below (fig #1), Kansas reduced school funding 16.5% during the recession; California 13.8%.
- And (2nd figure) Kansas schools average 35% local funding; 30% is the figure for California.
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