Kansas Supreme Court Gives State Education Funding Ultimatum

money

The Kansas Supreme Court has given the state until June 30 to create a better system for financing public schools, threatening a court-ordered shutdown before the beginning of the next school year if the state fails to meet its obligations.

The court ruling claims that the Republican-controlled Legislature has not improved upon the inequities between poor and rich school districts, saying that a law put in place last year as a temporary solution resulted in poor school districts being underfunded by around $54 million.

“The legislature’s unsuccessful attempts to equitably, i.e., fairly, allocate resources among the school districts not only creates uncertainty in planning the 2016-2017 school year but also has the potential to interrupt the operation of Kansas’ public schools,” the court said.

In a unanimous decision, the high court ruled that the law was in violation of a requirement within the state constitution that says every child must be offered a suitable education.  Lawmakers now have just four months to redistribute over $4 billion in state funding to 286 public schools.

John S. Rabb, one of the lawyers arguing for the school districts and parents who are currently suing the state, said that he believes close to $73 million would need to be added by the Legislature in order to appease the court, writes Julie Bosman for The New York Times.

The lawsuit was first pursued in 2010 by four school districts who argued that the funding method used by the state put poor schools and disadvantaged and minority schoolchildren at a disadvantage.

As a result of the lawsuit, a $140 million increase in education funding was approved by legislators in 2014.  However, the added cost of doing so for the 2014-15 school year grew the increase by $54 million when put into the state’s per-student formula for distributing funding.

The 2015 law was then implemented as a temporary fix to replace the previously used formula with “block grants,” freezing education funds outside of teacher pension contributions.  In the end, lawmakers decided they would not be giving the extra $54 million to school districts after the schools created their budgets under the assumption that they would be receiving the funds.  As a result, programs were cut in districts across Kansas, jobs were lost, and the 2014-15 school year ended early, reports John Hanna for ABC News.

The court, meanwhile, argued that denying the funds resulted in the school funding law being unfair to poorer districts.

“Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30,” the court said in its unsigned ruling.”

However, not everyone is happy with the ruling.  Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick said the move was, in effect, holding taxpayers and schoolchildren hostage.  Sen. Jeff Melcher called the decision a temper tantrum.  “It’s kind of one of those things, ‘Give us the money, or the kid gets it,’” Melcher said.

Meanwhile, Governor Sam Brownback said that while the ruling came from an “activist” court, “We will review this decision closely and work with the Legislature to ensure the continued success of our great Kansas schools.”