By John Celock
The Kansas Supreme Court has handed an ultimatum to state lawmakers, either devise a new school finance formula acceptable to the court by June 30 or face the closure of the state’s public schools.
In a ruling issued Thursday morning, the Supreme Court said that the block grant school finance law that lawmakers enacted last year did not meet the adequacy or equitable guidelines set in the state constitution or in previous court rulings. The Court ruled that if lawmakers do not create a new school finance formula by June 30 of this year – recommending going back to the old formula – then the state would not be allowed to fund the state’s public schools for the 2016-2017 school year and schools would close.
“Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30,” the Court wrote. “And because an unconstitutional system is invalid, efforts to implement it can be enjoined. See Gannon I, 298 Kan. at 1199 (if on remand the legislative cure fails the test for constitutional equity, “the panel should enjoin [its] operation”).”
The Court ruled that without the new funding plan in place, the state would not be allowed to raise the funds needed to provide aid to the schools.
“In short, if by the close of fiscal year 2016, ending June 30, the State is unable to satisfactorily demonstrate to this court that the legislature has complied with the will of the people as expressed in Article 6 of their constitution through additional remedial legislation or otherwise, then a lifting of the stay of today’s mandate will mean no constitutionally valid school finance system exists through which funds for fiscal year 2017 can lawfully be raised, distributed, or spent,” the Court wrote.
The Court ruling comes a day after the state House of Representatives gave preliminary approval to the state budget and hours before the House was slated to give final approval to the budget plan. The state Senate is slated to start debate on the budget Thursday afternoon. The budget – which will include the funds for the school finance formula – is likely to head to a legislative conference committee, which could help develop the new formula, along with education related committees in both chambers.
The financing of the new school formula could though upend the current budget drafts, which include a delayed payment for the state pension system, pay hikes for corrections officers and the Kansas Bureau of Investigations, a renewed bonding cap for the Department of Transportation and changes to borrowing authority for the University of Kansas.
The ruling is part of a long standing debate between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and the Supreme Court over education funding, an issue which has also pitted ideological factions of the Legislature against each other. Democrats and moderate Republicans have largely called for the old finance formula to remain in place, while conservative Republicans have called for an overhaul.
Lawmakers from suburban Johnson County – particularly moderate Republicans – have defended the old formula, while those from the other parts of the state have argued that the old formula labeled wealthier districts as improvished, giving them more aid, while rural districts that have been losing students have been labeled as wealthy and losing aid.
Supporters last year said the bill boosted education funding over Brownback’s original proposal, while opponents had argued that the block grant bill would hurt school districts.
“We are trying to create budget certainty. We also want to increase the flexibilities for the schools to apply those funds that we give them,” House Education Budget Committee Chairwoman Amanda Grosserode (R-Lenexa) said last year. “This bill spends more than the governor’s budget.”
During the block grant debate last year, supporters defended the change, saying that it would provide more control to local school districts. During the debate last year, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe) told the House that under the block grants, local districts would be able to move money around amongst line items, rather than having them in “silos.”
“Some of us trust the local officials. We trust those of us who we elect,” Ryckman said last year. “This bill is about local control.”
Brownback proposed the block grant program in his 2015 State of the State Address as a temporary funding system for school districts around the state for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years, with a new formula being devised before the 2017-2018 school year. Lawmakers adopted the plan last year, amid objections from the Kansas National Education Association, several school district leaders and parent advocacy groups around the state. The education funding issue had been the main campaign theme of Brownback’s unsuccessful 2014 Democratic opponent, former House Minority Leader Paul Davis.
KNEA President Mark Farr praised the ruling, calling on lawmakers to adopt a new formula.
“In a courageous and well-reasoned opinion, the Supreme Court of Kansas has once again ruled that the state Legislature is not meeting its constitutional obligation to Kansas public schools,” Farr said. “Kansas educators have been working harder than ever to deal with the realities of irresponsible tax cuts, the corresponding revenue decline and the increase in the need these policies have produced. On behalf of the educators of Kansas, I call upon the Legislature to end the partisan gamemanship and to fulfill its obligation to the kids of Kansas without reservation or retribution.”
The Court planted the school finance future at the feet of state lawmakers in the rulings, saying they will determine the path forward for the state.
“Accordingly, the legislature’s chosen path during the 2016 session will ultimately determine whether Kansas students will be treated fairly and the schoolhouse doors will be open to them in August for the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year,” the Court wrote. “The legislature’s choices will also dictate whether we may proceed to the final stage of this litigation, i.e., the sooner the legislature establishes a constitutional funding system, the sooner this case can be dismissed.”
The Court said they believe that the Legislature can enact a new plan before June 30, noting that in 2014, the Legislature was able to put in place legislation reacting to a previous school finance ruling within weeks.
Democrats were quick to cheer the ruling with House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs (D-Kansas City) issuing a statement saying that Brownback and his allies have “mismanaged our state, jeopardizing our children’s future.”
“In contrast, Democrats value schools, teachers and our children’s futures,” he said. “We know our schools are the bedrock of our communities and are crucial to rebuilding the Kansas economy. We stand ready to invest in public education to ensure every child has a chance to succeed.”
House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying that the Court “showed itself to be the most politically motivated of all branches of government.” He noted that the ruling was issued on Thursday and not on the typical Friday morning and came just hours before the final House vote on the state budget. He also said the Court did not follow a ruling from two months ago on separation of powers, regarding a decision for the Court to reclaim the authority to pick district court chief judges, overturning a state law handing the power to district court judges.
“The court has once again demonstrated no misgivings on interjecting itself in legislative proceedings and holding Kansas taxpayers and Kansas school children hostage,” Merrick said. “Kansans deserve better, and that is the consideration we will make going forward.”