The New York Times
School Cash Insufficient in Kansas, Court Finds
By JOHN ELIGONDEC. 30, 2014
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A state court panel in Kansas ruled on Tuesday that public schools were being unconstitutionally underfunded, though it stopped short of ordering a specific increase in education dollars.
The ruling comes as the Republican-controlled Legislature, which championed deep tax cuts in recent years, now finds the state facing projected budget deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars. “K-12 school funding in Kansas is still proceeding by political choice to use otherwise available state financial resources elsewhere or not at all,” the decision said.
The court also ruled that a provision allowing localities to provide funding to equalize the gap between rich and poor districts was insufficient because it did not guarantee that the playing field would be leveled.
But the decision of the court, in Shawnee County, is unlikely to have an immediate impact because the state is expected to appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court.
In previous years, the state’s courts have consistently ruled that Kansas lawmakers were not spending enough on K-12 education to meet the constitutional requirement of making “suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” That vague constitutional clause has been the foundation of raging political argument in the state.
Conservative lawmakers have balked at what they have seen as the judiciary intruding on the role of the Legislature. They have said that schools did not necessarily need more money, they just needed to spend it more wisely. Their opponents, meanwhile, have said that increased funding had a direct impact on better classroom performance.
Education funding represented one of the most controversial topics this year in Gov. Sam Brownback’s tight race for a second term. The Republican governor has made the billions of dollars in income tax cuts a hallmark of his tenure, much to the chagrin of critics who say that tax cuts will bankrupt the state and prevent the funding of vital services, most notably education.
While the governor has increased the state’s contribution to education funding since taking office in 2011, much of it has gone toward teacher pensions, not classroom instruction, and critics say he has failed to keep pace with inflation.
Much of the argument centers on what is known as base state aid per pupil, or the amount spent on each student. Lawsuits from previous years had ended with the Legislature agreeing to phase in increases that would get that figure to $4,492. But it peaked at $4,433 in 2008 and then slid because of the recession. It is now down to $3,852.
In its 119-page opinion, the court, perhaps sensitive to lawmakers’ disdain for being told what to do, did not say that they had to increase K-12 funding to a particular amount. Instead, the judges suggested that the funding would be constitutional if base state aid per pupil was somewhere around $4,654 or $4,980.
This same three-judge panel ruled last year that lawmakers needed to inject an additional $440 million of annual school funding to meet the constitutionally acceptable base state aid. But the state’s Supreme Court sent the issue back to the district court, saying that it needed to reconsider whether total funding was adequate using a different legal standard.
Just this week, Mr. Brownback had told local news media that he wanted to completely revamp the school funding formula to make it more sustainable.
“We will review today’s decision carefully,” said Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman. “The governor will work with legislative leaders to determine the best path forward.”
He faces a difficult funding cycle with a nearly $280 million budget gap to fill this fiscal year and around $650 million in the next.
“The formula’s fine,” said John S. Robb, one of the lawyers representing the school districts and individuals suing the state in the lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas. “But you got to fund it. You got to fund whatever you do. They did not find the formula was wrong. So Brownback’s trying to fix something that’s not broken.”
A version of this article appears in print on December 31, 2014, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: School Cash Insufficient in Kansas, Court Finds. Order Reprints|