The Kansas Supreme Court and state Legislature cannot seem to get on the same page when it comes to “adequate” and “equity” for school funding.
During the 2017 session, the legislature passed a new school funding formula and added nearly $300 million to schools’ coffers, spread over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. The Supreme Court’s decision Monday said the 2017 Legislature’s new school finance law violated the adequacy and equity requirements of Article 6 of the Constitution, which imposes a duty on the Legislature to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”
This is the court’s fifth decision in this case — called Gannon v. Kansas — since November 2010. Four school districts — Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City — sued the state alleging the Legislature is underfunding schools.
The court divided the case into two parts: “adequacy,” dealing with whether the overall amount of education funding is enough; and “equity,” dealing with whether the legislature has fairly divided money between wealthy and poor districts.
For legislators, the court’s rejection keeps the issue in turmoil. Rep. Kevin Jones, Wellsville, who was a member of the House K-12 committee in 2017, said the school funding fight appears to remain in a stalemate.
“This latest decision is one that guarantees that decades of litigation will continue,” he said. “We need constitutional justice and common sense from our court. We need judges to quit making law through manipulation, and start interpreting our constitution. Our high court in Kansas has lost itself.”
Rep. Blaine Finch, Ottawa, said the justices are not against the Legislature, but interpret the constitution differently.
“They feel duty bound to hold this constitutional standard,” he said. “I don’t think it is a type of vendetta against the Legislature the courts have. The friction in the system comes in the words in the constitution, ‘make suitable provision.’ It doesn’t contain a dollar figure. The important thing is not to speak out of frustration, but to dig into the opinion and see where the path forward may lay and move the state down that path.”
Finch, an Ottawa attorney, was against the justices giving a dollar figure, but said he may have changed his mind.
“If that is the game, we might as well hear what the dollar figure is, rather than try to continue to guess,” he said. “If there is not going to be any leeway for legislative discretion — I think there should be — ultimately [having a figure] would be more helpful than not.”
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer said a conclusion is needed to this decades-long fight.
“These lawsuits over funding for Kansas schools have been ongoing for at least 45 years,” he said. “This problem spans nine governorships and has persisted through both Democrat and Republican administrations. Unfortunately, these legal challenges have not resulted in the progress Kansans expect for our kids in the classroom. This is a complex issue. Success should be measured in outcomes for our students. In the weeks ahead, I will be listening to educators, parents, experts and business leaders, and engaging with the Legislature as we work to address the Gannon ruling.”
Finch said a suitable solution will not be easy to achieve, but one he hopes comes to fruition.
“Time will be necessary,” he said. “We have people who will be looking early to craft solutions and figure out what the options are. The majority of the formula that was crafted last year seems to be acceptable.”
He said legislators will need flexible ideas to stretch the budget to cover increases to schools.
“The real conflict this session will be A) how much money needs to be added so the courts will find it adequate and B) where does that money come from?” Finch said. “All legislators hate to raise taxes. If you don’t get it there, you get it from fairly deep cuts because of the structure of the budget. Education makes up more than 50 percent of the state budget. So you would be looking at steep cuts to everything else — healthcare, care of the aged and disabled, the regents system, Kansas Highway Patrol and KPERS [Kansas Public Employees Retirement System] — all of those things would have to be on the table if you look to do this without raising taxes.”
The court gave the Legislature time to enact a plan during the 2018 session. But the court cautioned after June 30. “We will not allow ourselves to be placed in the position of being complicit actors in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education owed to hundreds of thousands of Kansas schoolchildren.”
The court set up a timeline for the Legislature:
• April 30, 2018: Parties must brief whether the Legislature’s response is constitutional.
• May 10, 2018: Parties may respond to each other’s briefs.
• May 22, 2018: Oral arguments.
• June 30, 2018: The decision.