State court panel says Kansas isn’t spending enough on public schools

Kansas Capitol

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TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT/AP) — Kansas isn’t spending enough money on its public schools to provide a suitable education for every child, a state district court panel ruled Tuesday in an order that could mean the state has to boost its aid by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

An attempt by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature to comply with the order would complicate their efforts to close state budget shortfalls and preserve aggressive personal income tax cuts enacted at Brownback’s urging to boost the economy.

The Shawnee County District Court panel declared in its 139-page ruling that the state’s current funding is “inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence.”

“Since the obligations here declared emanate from our Kansas Constitution, avoidance is not an option,” the judges said.

The three judges’ order could mean the state has to boost its aid to public schools by hundreds of millions of dollars a year. An attempt by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature to comply would complicate their efforts to close state budget shortfalls and preserve aggressive personal income tax cuts enacted at Brownback’s urging to boost the economy.

Kansas is currently facing a predicted $279 million budget shortfall by July, with an additional $436 million shortfall to close by July 2016.

The panel did not set a specific figure for what is adequate, but said the evidence suggests it should be at least $548 million more a year, or $4,654 per student in base aid — and possibly much higher.

“An educated workforce is key to Kansas’ economic success,” said John Allison, Superintendent of the Wichita Public Schools-USD259. “I am pleased to see the court’s affirmation that an adequately-funded education is of vital importance to Kansas. While we won’t immediately know the impact of the ruling, we do believe today’s court decision is a great one for today’s students and the future of our state.”

U.S.D. 308 Superintendent Shelly Kiblinger of Hutchinson echoed those comments. “A final decision from the Supreme Court may take up to a year, so any change to school budgets and the funding formula would be premature until we get that ruling.

The state is expected to appeal the Shawnee County District Court panel’s decision to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Parents of more than 30 students and the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts sued the state in 2010 after recession-driven budget problems caused it to back away from promised increases in education funding.

The state constitution says the Legislature must make “suitable provision” for financing public schools. The Kansas Supreme Court has declared in previous rulings that state spending must ensure all children get a suitable education.

“We expect that this case will be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court,” said Cynthia Lane, Superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. “In the meantime our goals remain the same and those are to prepare every student for college and careers in a global society.

In Dodge City, U.S.D. 443 Superintendent, Alan Cunningham said “In order to accomplish the goal of making every child college or career ready, we need appropriate resources to do our jobs. We continue to have faith that the Kansas legislature will work to ensure that every Kansas child has access to an adequate and fully funded formula  for education.”

Kansas spends $13,269 per student in its public schools, but the figure includes federal funds and local property tax dollars. The state’s own base aid — a figure seen by educators as measuring state dollars for classroom and general administrative expenses — is $3,852 per student.

The base aid figure peaked at $4,433 in 2008, and is now $581, or 13 percent lower — even as the state increased the total dollars it put into schools to $3.4 billion annually, partly because teacher pension costs have risen.

Kansas once promised that base state aid would reach $4,492 per student, costing the state an additional $437 million. The parents and school districts who sued argued that the actual figure should be $6,000 per student — which would boost the state’s annual costs by nearly $1.5 billion.

The state budget gaps arose after Brownback successfully pushed lawmakers to cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013. Kansas cut its top rate by 26 percent and exempted the owners of 191,000 businesses from income taxes altogether, and further cuts are promised.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley sent Kansas First News the following statement saying “The people of Kansas spoke more than 50 years ago when they overwhelmingly approved the requirement in our state’s constitution that the Legislature must provide for suitable finance of education.

“Today’s decision confirms what I have said many times in the past – the school finance formula is not broken, it is underfunded.  Governor Brownback’s largest cut to K-12 funding in Kansas history is threatening the quality of education our children are receiving wherever they may reside in our state.

“The decision also acknowledges that ‘the self-imposed fiscal dilemma now facing the State’ is not an excuse for the governor and the legislature to avoid their constitutional obligation.”

Rep. Tom Burrough as well sent out a statement stating “Kansans never needed a court ruling to know that Governor Brownback’s education cuts have had a devastating impact on our communities and our economy. Parents, teachers, and local leaders have struggled with higher fees, programs cuts and growing class sizes for far too long. Governor Brownback talked a big game about school funding while he campaigned for re-election last fall. Now it’s time for him to ante up and finally restore dollars back to our classrooms. It’s what Kansans want and what our children deserve.”

In January 2013, the same three-judge panel ruled that the state was obligated to boost its annual spending on schools by $440 million a year, but the Kansas Supreme Court said in March 2014 that the judges should have used different legal standards for determining whether funding is adequate.

The higher court also ruled that recession-driven budgeting had created unconstitutional gaps between poor school districts and their wealthier counterparts, and Brownback and legislators responded by boosting aid to the poor districts by $129 million a year. But the Supreme Court ordered the lower-court panel to take another look at whether total funding was adequate.

The state constitution says the Legislature must make “suitable provision” for financing public schools. The Kansas Supreme Court has declared in previous rulings that state spending must ensure all children get a suitable education.

Kansas spends $13,269 per student in its public schools, but that figure includes federal funds and local property tax dollars. The state’s own base aid — a figure seen by educators as measuring state dollars for classroom and general administrative expenses — is $3,852 per student.

The base aid figure peaked at $4,433 in 2008, and is now $581, or 13 percent lower — even as the state increased the total dollars it put into schools to $3.4 billion annually, partly because teacher pension costs have risen.

Kansas once promised its base state aid would reach $4,492 per student, and the three-judge panel pegged its lowest figure for what’s adequate to that number, adjusted for inflation since 2012.

The parents and school districts who sued had argued for an even higher base aid figure, but John Robb, a Newton attorney representing them, called Tuesday’s ruling “a great decision for Kansas kids.”

“It recognizes a continuation of a problem we’ve had for decades, of governors and Legislatures underfunding schools,” Robb said.

The three-judge panel said it understands that the state faces “a self-imposed fiscal dilemma” and suggested negotiations among the parties.

Brownback successfully pushed lawmakers to cut the state’s top personal income tax rate by 26 percent and exempt the owners of 191,000 businesses from income taxes altogether. Further cuts are promised.

In January 2013, the same three-judge panel ruled that the state was obligated to boost its annual spending on schools by $440 million a year, but the Kansas Supreme Court said in March 2014 that the judges should have used different legal standards for determining whether funding is adequate.

The higher court also ruled that recession-driven budgeting had created unconstitutional gaps between poor school districts and their wealthier counterparts, and Brownback and legislators responded by boosting aid to the poor districts by $129 million a year. But the Supreme Court ordered the lower-court panel to take another look at whether total funding was adequate.

 

 

The Associated Press contributed to this story

 

 

 

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