The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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March 7, 2014

Kansas high court: School funding unconstitutional

TOPEKA, Kan. — In a highly anticipated ruling Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court said the state’s current public school funding levels are unconstitutional and sent the case back to lower court for more review.

In the 110-page decision, the court said Kansas’ poor school districts were harmed when the state made the decision to cut certain payments when tax revenues declined during the Great Recession.

The state Supreme Court sent the case back to district court for more review to “promptly” determine what the adequate amount of funding should be, but didn’t set a deadline for a hearing.

“We’re confident when the trial court does this, we’re going to prevail again or even improve our entire case,” John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said during a conference call Friday. “We view this as a huge victory for Kansas kids.”

A July 1 deadline was set for legislators to restore money for two funds aimed at helping poorer districts with capital projects and general school operations.

The next step is for the Legislature to react, Robb said, adding he’s optimistic.

“They may bluster about this for a bit,” he said. “But in the end, they’ll do what they took an oath to do — support the constitution.”

State Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, said he thought the court made “a wise decision” and “set a tremendous example for other high courts around the country.”

“The Supreme Court acted within their powers,” LaTurner said. “They didn’t overstep their bounds, and they didn’t order the Legislature to put money back in like the lower court did.”

LaTurner said the Supreme Court started talking about something that is important, “and that is the equality of school funding across the state of Kansas.”

“For me, I probably represent more poor school districts than anyone is the Legislature,” he said, adding now the matter of inequality will be taken seriously, and kids across Kansas should have the same opportunities no matter where they live.

David Carriger, superintendent of the Columbus School District, said the district has eliminated 16 staff positions and about $1.5 million has been cut out of its budget over the past five years.

“I think the majority of superintendents have had to make difficult decisions over the last few years,” Carriger said. “Our class size is good, but of course everybody has to do a little bit more.”

Carriger said he wants to see fair funding across the state for kids.

“I want to see a student from Columbus have the same opportunities as students from Kansas City, Lawrence or Wichita,” he said.

A state Department of Education official estimates legislators must increase funding by $129 million, in addition to the more than $3 billion the state has budgeted for the 2014-2015 school year.

The case also has broader implications beyond the classroom: Kansas enacted sweeping cuts to income taxes in 2012 and 2013 championed by Gov. Sam Brownback that have reduced the amount of available resources to comply with a court order. Lawmakers could be forced to reconsider the tax measures, which Kansas and other Republican-run states have pushed as a means to stimulate their economies.

LaTurner said there are a number of options that can be taken to provide the funding, but “I just don’t know what the most popular method is going to be at this point.”

Kansas legislators had delayed any decisions on school funding until the high court made a final judgment.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 on behalf of parents and school districts who argued the state had harmed students because spending cuts resulted in lower test scores. State attorneys maintained that legislators did their best to minimize cuts to education.

A three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court said in January 2013 that the lawsuit was valid, and the state appealed that ruling to the high court.

Brownback, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and legislative leaders scheduled a Friday afternoon news conference to discuss the ruling.

“This is a complex decision that requires thoughtful review,” Brownback said in a statement. “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.”

Because no issues involving the U.S. Constitution were raised, there’s no appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the lawsuit, attorneys representing four school districts and parents alleged that Kansas reneged on promises made in 2006 to provide a certain level of funding for the Kansas’ public schools, namely that the failure to provide money for classroom instruction has harmed the state’s education system — including programs aimed at helping poor and minority students.

In recent years, school districts have trimmed their staffs, cut after-school programs and raised fees for parents.

State attorneys had said legislators did the best they could to maintain education spending among the reduced available revenues during the recession, pointing to efforts to raise the state sales tax rate in 2010 and the reliance on federal stimulus funding to keep spending stable.

Brownback’s personal income tax cuts will be worth nearly $3.9 billion over the next five years, and he has claimed that Kansas is leading a low-tax, small-government “American renaissance.” Republican leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature suggested before they convened in January that they might resist an order for more spending.

Dianne Piche, director of education programs at the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Republican extremists are cutting education budgets “to the bone” in some states.

“At the same time, we’re entering an era where there’s a consensus in this country that the education systems need to be amped up and not watered down,” Piche said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

State constitutions

All states have language in their constitutions for providing public school funding. But Kansas’ courts in the past have been strong and specific in spelling out how the state must carry out that responsibility, and education advocates wondered earlier this year whether the push in Kansas to base funding on costs — not political considerations — would continue, perhaps emboldening parents and educators in other states.

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