Kansas lawmakers told to fix school funding

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — How Kansas lawmakers respond to a recent court decision on school funding will determine whether the courts step in again to correct a gap in funding between poor and rich districts, the state attorney general said Tuesday.

Republican Derek Schmidt gave a briefing to members of the House Appropriations Committee, which has been asked by House Speaker Ray Merrick to devise the legislative response to the ruling. The court ruled March 7 that past cuts in state aid to poor school districts created unconstitutional gaps in funding between poor and wealthy districts. The court ordered lawmakers to fix the problem by July 1.

Schmidt reiterated that legislators have options for complying with the decision, ranging from full compliance and increasing spending by $129 million, to spending a lesser amount and modifying the school funding formula. He did not provide a specific suggestion for how legislators should respond to the ruling.

“The court gave you a lot of running room,” said Schmidt, whose office defended the state in the litigation. “That’s for you all to sort out.”

Committee members are trying to come up with a financial solution to satisfy the court’s orders with two deadlines in mind. Legislators end the 2014 session in early May and the court set a July 1 deadline for a response.

The seven-member Kansas Supreme Court has said that the three-judge district court panel that ruled on the lawsuit could weigh the legislators’ response and decide if the court order has been met. The panel also will take another shot at determining if public school spending, currently more than $3 billion in state funds alone, meets the standards established in the 1989 Rose v. Kentucky school finance lawsuit.

“This case is not over,” Schmidt said.

The Rose case involved a challenge to the Kentucky school finance system and resulted in increased state spending, as well as identifying specific criteria for what constituted an adequate education for all students. The criteria have been adopted by several states, including Kansas which put it in state law in 2005.

The lawsuit was filed by parents and school districts alleging the state had reneged on funding promises made in 2005 to settle the last school lawsuit. While spending initially increased, much of those gains were lost during the Great Recession starting in 2008 when state revenues declined. Attorneys for the state argued legislators did their best to minimize education cuts, while also trying to target additional spending for specific programs and teacher pensions.

Rep. Jerry Lunn, an Overland Park Republican, said he hoped that any review would take into account the amount of funding, from teacher pensions to local and federal sources, which push the amount per student to close to $13,000 annually. Lunn said the question was whether districts were operating efficiently to meet the state’s education goals, noting that spending amounts were “all over the map” when looking at all 286 school districts.

The committee is scheduled to hear more about the ruling on Wednesday and start deliberations on Thursday. The Senate Ways and Means Committee is expected to begin debating its solutions on Thursday.

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