The Kansas Supreme Court on January 3 issued an unsigned, five-page ruling stating Kansas spends too little on education–without specifying how much the state should spend or how to pay for additional spending.
Trial attorneys for school districts that challenged the level of state funding for education–the lead plaintiffs are the Salina and Dodge City school districts–are claiming $1 billion in additional state spending is required.
2003 Decision Partly Affirmed
The dollar amount of their claim stems from an earlier ruling issued in December 2003 by Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock, who ordered the state to spend another $1 billion on education, particularly for minority and low-income students. Bullock based his decision on a finding that Kansas’ school funding formula is unconstitutional and discriminatory.
The Kansas State Board of Education and the Kansas legislature, represented by the state attorney general’s office, appealed Bullock’s decision.
The Kansas Supreme Court reversed Bullock’s decision in part and affirmed it in part. The two reversals said the state’s formula for distributing public school funding was constitutional, and there were no equal protection violations or discriminatory actions by the state.
However, the state supreme court also upheld part of Bullock’s decision by saying, “We affirm the district court’s holding that the legislature has failed to meet its burden as imposed by Art. 6 Sec. 6 of the Kansas Constitution to ‘make suitable provision for finance’ of the public schools.”
Court Acknowledges Questions
The court closed the decision by saying, “We are aware that our decision 1) raises questions about continuing the present financing formula pending corrective action by the legislature; 2) could have the potential to disrupt the public schools; and 3) requires the legislature to act expeditiously to provide constitutionally suitable funding for the public school system.
“Accordingly, at this time we do not remand this case to the district court or consider a final remedy, but instead we will retain jurisdiction and stay all further proceedings to allow the legislature a reasonable time to correct the constitutional infirmity in the present financing formula. In the meantime, the present financing formula and funding will remain in effect until further order of the court.”
The order further warned, “Its [the legislature’s] failure to act in the face of this opinion would require this court to direct action to be taken to carry out that responsibility.”
The court gave the legislature until April 12 to act.
Attorney General Largely Pleased
In a statement issued January 6, Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline (R) said, “The decision handed down by the Kansas Supreme Court upholds key aspects of the Kansas school finance formula contrary to the previous opinion issued by District Court Judge Terry Bullock.”
Among other things, Kline said, the court “gave deference to the governor and legislature to set educational policy and schools will remain open,” “rejected plaintiffs’ equal protection claims under both the Kansas and United States Constitutions,” and “rejects Judge Bullock’s claims that suitable means equal and thereby resists the temptation to punish excellence and mandate mediocrity.”
Kline suggested legislators have several options for addressing the ruling aside from raising spending and taxes. For instance, he said they could change the school aid formula to weight more heavily the needs of districts with a high proportion of minority, low-income, or special education students. He also suggested defining “suitable” funding by statute and amending the Kansas Constitution.
Governor Waiting for Legislators
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) has said she will wait to hear proposals from state legislators before recommending how to deal with the ruling. Sebelius last year proposed a $300 million tax increase for schools, but legislators rejected the proposal.
In a January 7 article, Sebelius was quoted as telling reporter Scott Rothschild of the Lawrence Journal-World, “A lot of them decided last year they wanted to wait until the court gave direction. So I’m ready, willing and able to work with them in any way possible, but I think the legislature needs to come together with a plan.”
Alan Cobb, director of the Kansas chapter of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, said in a prepared statement, “Today’s ruling is notable in that it very clearly does not mandate a tax hike on Kansas taxpayers and in that it requires the state to finally analyze how effectively our education dollars are spent.
“As the legislature considers its options, Americans for Prosperity will continue to discuss constructive solutions that will protect taxpayers and also make sure that the vast majority of this year’s scheduled 12 percent increase in education spending is effectively spent in our children’s classrooms.”
Karl Peterjohn ([email protected]) is executive director of the Kansas Taxpayers Network.