Kansas Increases Funding to Avoid School Shutdown

Published July 5, 2016

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed legislation to increase funding for poorer school districts, ensuring his state’s public school system will avoid a shutdown.

Brownback called Kansas lawmakers back to Topeka for a special legislative session in June to determine how to come up with $38 million to prevent school closures after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the state’s school-funding system was inequitable and unconstitutional. The Court first made its ruling in February and reaffirmed its decision in May.

The bill Brownback approved increases the state’s total education budget of $4 billion by less than 1 percent, diverting $38 million from other parts of the state budget and from wealthier districts to poor districts.

‘Judicial Bullying’

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, says the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling on school finance was “a way to establish [its] desired dominance over the [state] legislature.”

The court’s behavior is bad for students and teachers, Trabert says.

“Nothing is accomplished by the [Kansas] Supreme Court threatening to close schools because a tiny piece of funding isn’t allocated as the Court prefers or by legislators vowing to stand firm against judicial bullying,” Trabert said. “In the meantime, almost a half-million students are threatened with loss of their constitutional right to education, and 70,000 school employees could lose their paychecks.”

Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, says courts use their power to impose their preferences on duly elected lawmakers.

“Courts think they have the right idea of the amount of money in educational funding,” Smarick said. “This is just the latest chapter in a fight between legislatures, governors, and courts over the right source of funding for schools.”

Will of the People 

Trabert says consideration of equity should “absolutely be included in questions of the ‘people’s will’ and the Kansas Constitution,” but that was likely not the case in this instance.

“It’s hard to imagine that ‘the people’ would prefer to have schools closed than to have students be exposed to a system with a few possibly misplaced dollars,” Trabert said.

Trabert says the Kansas Supreme Court doesn’t give the Kansas Legislature any freedom to make real choices.

“The Court repeatedly says the Kansas Legislature can resolve equity in a variety of ways of their own device, but that’s like Henry Ford telling customers they could choose whatever color car they wanted as long as it was black,” Trabert said.

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.