Kansas Schools Get Budget Boost

Published August 1, 2005

Kansas lawmakers, under threat the state’s high court would close down the state’s public education system, have given public schools even more money than the Kansas Supreme Court ordered on June 3.

In special session July 6, lawmakers approved adding $148 million to public school funding for the current fiscal year, $5 million more than ordered. The additional $148 million comes on top of a $142 million increase in education spending the legislature approved earlier in the year, for a total boost of $290 million. This coming January, the court could order the state to spend another $563 million over the next year.

The court’s ruling in Montoy vs. the State of Kansas “is stunning in its arrogance, momentous in its potential reach, and earth-shaking in its impact,” said State Sen. Tim Huelskamp (R-Fowler) in a June 7 statement.

In a July 11 telephone interview, Huelskamp complained the Kansas courts have usurped the constitutional power of the legislature to set budget and tax priorities. He said the ruling’s fiscal implications “are frightening. We’re looking at a massive tax increase like has never been done. Kansans haven’t seen the bill yet. Citizens are going to be furious.”

Ruled Finance Difficulties Irrelevant

Plaintiff’s attorney Alan Rupe, who argued the case for 15 school districts including Dodge City and Salina, said the state’s budget situation does not matter.

“Lack of money is no defense,” Rupe said. “In Kansas, education is a constitutionally guaranteed matter. There is no legal defense based on economic necessity. In some areas of law, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, reasonableness and economy are factors as to whether accommodations are made. In this matter, there is no defense the state can’t afford it.”

The case hinged on the argument of funding equity and “suitability.” The mid-size and large school districts represented by Rupe complained that small school districts received proportionally more money. They also complained the state was failing to meet a state constitutional requirement that all students receive a “suitable” education.

Spending Already Above Average

The state currently spends more than $3 billion annually for its 440,000 students. Per-pupil spending, with the additional $290 million this year, comes to $10,375, one of the highest amounts in the region, according to Huelskamp, who opposed the special session’s spending increase. Average test scores among Kansas students also are well above national averages.

Rupe acknowledged Kansas’ higher-than-average per-pupil spending and test scores but argued averages are misleading. He cited test scores showing big gaps in achievement between students from affluent communities and students in poorer school districts, particularly minority students.

The Kansas Supreme Court accepted that evidence and rejected testimony from others, including school finance expert Herbert Walberg, chairman of the Board of Directors of The Heartland Institute (publisher of Budget & Tax News), who testified there is little evidence that more education spending results in better student performance.

‘Averages Hide Problem’

“Our mantra has been ‘averages hide the problem,'” Rupe said. “Some kids in wealthy school districts are doing extremely well. Others are doing poorly. When you look at who’s not doing well, the achievement gap is glaring.

“An analogy I used before the supreme court was this: I told the court if you averaged Bill Gates’ income and my income, on average we do pretty well, but the average hides the fact he’s a heck of a lot richer than I am,” Rupe said.

Karl Peterjohn, executive director of the Kansas Taxpayers Network, scoffed at the analogy and the claims that more spending would bring better student performance.

“Kansas already spends more than the national average on K through 12 education, despite having lower-than-average income,” Peterjohn said. “We already have a heavy tax burden, and our biggest private-sector employer, Boeing, is dissolving its commercial aircraft division. Sprint is the second-largest employer and has laid off thousands in the last few years. General Motors has an assembly plant and has announced it will be laying off thousands. New taxes will make things worse.”

Conflicts of Interest Cited

Peterjohn also slammed the state supreme court itself, noting that Joyce Allegrucci, chief of staff for Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), who favored the ruling, is married to Kansas Justice Don Allegrucci. Justice Lawton Nuss also served as legal counsel for the Salina school system, the lead plaintiff in the case, before joining the state supreme court.

“Would you want to go to court and face a judge who used to serve as legal counsel for your courtroom opponent?” Peterjohn said. “Allegrucci and Nuss should have recused themselves.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.