Court to Kansas: Spend More on Schools

Kindergarten students at Frank Rushton Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan. Photograph by John Hanna/AP Photo

The Kansas Supreme Court today found the state’s funding for K-12 education unconstitutional, saying budget cuts unfairly affect students in poorer districts. The 110-page ruling (PDF) left open the broader, and perhaps more contentious, issue of whether the state provided the “suitable” funding for schools that the state constitution requires. States across the country slashed their school budgets during the Great Recession, and the rise of states run by Republican governors and legislators who favor tax cuts over spending has slowed the funding rebound as the economy has recovered. Almost a dozen other states now face lawsuits over equitable and adequate funding, so the Kansas ruling was closely watched among both student advocates and state legislators.

Kansas has faced similar challenges before, and in 2005 it was ordered by the court to provide more for its students. In response, the legislature agreed to budget $4,492 per student by 2010, a level the court deemed adequate, but when the economy tanked, legislators never fulfilled that promise. In 2010, Kansas spent $4,012 per student, and by 2012, as new tax cuts kicked in, the funding fell to $3,780 per pupil. The state also eliminated almost half a billion dollars in capital spending.

In 2010, when the budget was cut, four school districts and 31 parents and students sued on behalf of all districts and students in the state. In early 2013, after a 16-day trial, a panel of three trial-court judges ruled that the schools were “unconstitutionally underfunded” to provide the suitable and equitable education required in the Kansas constitution. Governor Sam Brownback appealed the decision, saying only legislators, not the court, have control over the budget.

Today’s state Supreme Court ruling focused on two main issues. One finding was clear-cut: The court said the budget cuts hit poorer school districts more than wealthy ones, which had more local tax revenue to supplement state support. That created “unreasonable, wealth-based disparities” that were unconstitutional. If legislators don’t fix the problem on their own, the trial court has the right to enjoin a specific solution.

The finding on whether the funding overall was adequate, however, wasn’t as cut and dry. Kansas’s high court said the trial court’s panel erred when it focused just on the budget to rule that the schools were underfunded and instead should have also considered the expenditures necessary to provide quality education. The Supreme Court went on to list seven factors that the trial court should use to determine the appropriate funding. Those factors are based on a ruling (PDF) in a seminal 1989 suit in Kentucky and were later codified in Kansas law (but not in its constitution). Today’s ruling makes clear that those seven factors are now the benchmark for how the courts will test the constitutionality of funding in the future.

As the Associated Press points out, the ruling will no doubt ultimately force the state to spend more on schools, and so it threatens the sweeping income tax cuts that Brownback championed as reducing state revenue by an estimated $3.9 billion over five years. In a statement, Brownback said the ruling was “complex” and required “thoughtful review.” He’s hosting a news conference this afternoon.

All of this legal wrangling—going on four years in court and more than 22,000 pages of legal documents—is over providing just the minimum level of funding. Excellence … well, that’s a whole other question.

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