Kansas Court, Legislators at Impasse on Education Funding

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

The Kansas legislature’s attempt to secure bipartisan support for a court-mandated increase in state aid to poor school districts came to a halt after representatives from the Kansas City suburbs demanded assurances that their schools won’t lose money.

The Supreme Court in Kansas ruled that the state’s education funding system is unfair to poor school districts. For example, in Kansas City, where nearly 90% of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the district has cut more than $50 million from its already tight budget because of state cutbacks. The state Supreme Court warned that unless the funding system becomes more equitable, schools might not be able to reopen after June 30th if the state legislature does not change the funding system.

“The passion around doing the work is still present,” says Superintendent Cynthia Lane. “But it’s hard to maintain morale and to keep folks moving in the very aggressive direction that we’ve set for ourselves. It’s hard to ask them to stretch to do more when they’re already really doing everything that’s humanly possible.” The woes of the Kansas City school district are well documented by Jonathan Sapers, a writer for The Christian Science Monitor, in a piece titled: “Kansas City asks, How little money is too little for schools?”

According to John Hannah of ABCNews, Governor Sam Brownback is championing a plan to increase the state’s aid, which is already more than $4 billion annually, to 286 local school districts by another $37 million. The extra money would help poorer districts, and in doing so, some of the funds would be redistributed from dozens of wealthier districts, namely those in the Kansas City area.

In response, school superintendents and chambers of commerce are supporting a $50 million increase to prevent any school district from losing money, but Governor Brownback questions whether doing so will placate Kansas’s high court.

Nonetheless, a consensus appears to be gaining momentum toward the $38 million plan supported by Governor Brownback. Leading Democrats endorsed it and outlined proposals for diverting funds from other parts of the budget rather than siphoning money out of wealthier school districts.

“Although this does not make our district whole, this action, in our opinion, will work. Diluting funding, changing formulas or adding artificial provisions beyond the scope of the formula will simply continue the disparity and jeopardize reaching a constitutional resolution in a timely manner,” says Jim Freeman, USD 259 chief financial officer.

Conservative lawmakers, who are dominant in Kansas’s state legislatures, are frustrated with the state’s Supreme Court’s decision, which they believe exceeded the justices authority. They argue that the court does not have a role in determining whether schools will remain open or closed. According to Bryan Lowry of the website Kansas, a state senate committee agreed to pursue an amendment to the state constitution that would prevent schools from being shut down by the courts in the future because of issues over education funding.

The House committee has yet to make a recommendation on the amendment.