The Kansas Supreme Court took a couple of important steps Friday in its long-awaited school finance ruling.
First, justices unanimously found school funding to be unconstitutionally inequitable. Appropriately, they ordered the Kansas Legislature by July 1 to boost funding for the state’s poorer districts enough to ensure that their students have the same educational opportunities that students in wealthier districts have. An official in the Kansas Department of Education estimated the cost of “equalization aid” at $129 million.
Second, although this ruling was more nuanced than a ruling almost a decade ago that outraged legislators, justices made clear that suitable school funding isn’t a political issue, as lawyers for the state had argued. Said the Court: “The judiciary is the final authority to determine ad-herence to constitutional standards. The people’s constitutional standards must always prevail over the Legislature’s statutory standards, should the latter be lower.”
Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican legislative leaders, who on Friday called the ruling reasonable, might think otherwise if another part of the ruling doesn’t go their way. The Court deferred a pivotal decision on the adequacy of school funding.
In rejecting a three-judge panel’s finding that the state must invest hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure adequate funding, the Supreme Court directed a lower court to review pertinent issues and determine how much money the state needs to spend to meet its constitutional obligation to provide every child a suitable education. Justices made clear they seek prompt action, but did not give the lower court a deadline.
The lower court’s eventual ruling is the “other shoe.” If the lower court calls for vastly more school funding, the governor and Republican legislators — who already are working to diminish the judiciary’s authority — will almost certainly balk. That could result in the showdown — the constitutional crisis — that Friday’s ruling deftly avoided.
Education advocates, particularly those from districts that were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were pleased that the Supreme Court, for the second time in less than a decade, found that the Legislature’s funding for public schools violates the state Constitution. The governor and GOP legislative leaders took comfort in the fact that Friday’s ruling didn’t specify how much the state must spend to deal with equity issues in school funding or limit its discretion in doing so.
Lawmakers have ample time, if they react wisely. The history of the Legis-lature in recent years, however, has shown that tax cuts, particularly tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, take precedence over funding for schools and a host of other state programs and services.
We’d like to believe that lawmakers will act responsibly in the coming weeks. And we’d like to believe they’re motivated not just by the court order but because they share with the Supreme Court and education advocates the desire to correct inequities in school funding in Kansas.