Kansas high court: More school funds

Legislature stuck with meeting equity standards

By Bryan Richardson

The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously ruled Friday that the state’s education funding is unconstitutional in terms of equity.

In the long-awaited decision, it also asked a lower court to further review whether funding is constitutionally adequate.

The court heard arguments for Gannon v. Kansas in October, after the state appealed a January 2013 decision by the Shawnee County District Court that required the state to increase its base aid per pupil from $3,838 to $4,492 – which would require funding increased by at least $440 million.

The court upheld the lower court’s decision that the state failed to provide equity in public education, which created “unreasonable, wealth-based disparities.”

The ruling said this inequity was caused by not fully funding capital outlay and supplemental general state aid payments.

The Supreme Court said that Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution — the document’s education segment – contains both adequacy and equity components.

The court basically said that, while equity and adequacy are separate under Kansas law, one can affect the other — and that if equity provisions (funding, in other words) are corrected, that could provide the “adequate” standard the law intends.

However, the Supreme Court tossed the enforcement of correct standards back to lower courts — which could cause further delay in finishing the dispute.

State Rep. Tom Phillips, R-Manhattan, said his intention is to work closely with local and state school officials as the legislature begins to sort through the issues.

He said it’s time to determine what’s best for Kansas rather than have the legislature ignore the court’s ruling — which he has expressed concern that fellow legislators could do.

“I’m not one of the individuals that wants a constitutional crisis and to pick a fight with the Supreme Court,” Phillips said.

State Rep. Sydney Carlin, D-Manhattan, said the legislature has certain areas that can be visited in the budget to find funding.

“We would probably revisit those places as a way to scrap money together,” she said.

The court said the legislature had until July 1 to act correct equity issues.

It said further review by the lower court would be necessary if the legislature addresses the issue through means such as statutory amendment or less than full restoration of funding to prior levels.

State Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, said the legislature should be able to allocate the estimated $129 million additional funding needed to equalize education.

“I would guess that could easily be done by the legislature by the end of the session, without the need to waste taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Hawk said the question of adequate funding could play out longer, due to the “interesting” decision to send it back to the lower courts.

“I would guess this could be another year or so before this case runs its course,” he said.

This lawsuit is a follow-up to the Montoy v. Kansas case, in which the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that lawmakers failed to provide suitable funding.

The court and legislature agreed to raise base aid per pupil to $4,492.

The legislature made it to $4,400 per student by the 2008-09 school year, but the base aid per pupil dropped during that school year due to the national recession.

Currently, the base aid per pupil is at $3,838, with the approved budget providing $3,852 for the 2014-15 school year.

The court rejected the claims that some legislators have made about the judiciary branch improperly ruling on school funding issues.

“…The judiciary is the final authority to determine adherence to constitutional standards,” the ruling said. “The people’s constitutional standards must always prevail over the legislature’s statutory standards should the latter be lower.”

Gov. Sam Brownback called the ruling “complex” in a statement released prior to his Friday afternoon press conference.

“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.

The state’s education department and education board released a statement that said both entities would need to thoroughly review the court’s findings.

“The Kansas State Board of Education and the Kansas State Department of Education are encouraged that a decision is being made, alleviating the uncertainty lingering throughout our state’s education system and enabling us all to move forward with our work to educate the children of Kansas,” the statement said.

This case cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, because no issues regarding the U.S. Constitution were raised in the lawsuit.

In a local connection, David Stutzman, Riley County district judge, was assigned to the case, replacing Justice Carol Beier.

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