3/3/2017 1:01:00 PM School funding: Kansas Supreme Court orders public school spending hike
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas’ highest court on Thursday ordered the state to increase its spending on public schools, which could further complicate the state’s dire budget problems and increase pressure to undo large tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
The unanimous state Supreme Court ruling gave the Republican-controlled Legislature until the end of June to enact a new school funding law. Lawmakers were already working on one and considering raising income tax cuts to help close projected budget shortfalls totaling more than a $1 billion through June 2019.
Brownback said in a statement that lawmakers have a chance to pursue “transformative educational reform” and called for new school choice measures, without being more specific.
The court did not specify the size of a school funding increase, fueling debate over how much lawmakers must boost the state’s nearly $4.1 billion in annual aid to its 286 school districts. Attorneys for four school districts that sued the state over education funding in 2010 said the increase must be at least $800 million, but lawmakers didn’t immediately accept the figure.
“We’ll be like the proverbial chicken on a June bug if the state tries to do it on the cheap,” said Alan Rupe, one of the districts’ attorneys.
Many moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature favor rolling back the large income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013, which the conservative governor pushed as a way to stimulate the economy. The state has struggled to balance its budget ever since, and even some Republican voters have come to view the tax cuts as a failure.
Lawmakers last month approved a bill that would have increased income taxes to raise more than $1 billion over two years, but Brownback vetoed it. He favors raising cigarette and liquor taxes and business filing fees, along with internal government borrowing and other accounting moves.
Brownback and legislators have acknowledged that they couldn’t fully settle tax and budget issues without some idea of what the court would demand. The state spends more than half of its tax dollars on public schools.
“I’m sure that more funding will be required,” said state House Minority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from western Kansas.
Brownback said lawmakers should “put students first” in a new funding law and focus on improving their performance.
But he added that if parents of struggling students do not believe their children get a good education at a public school, “they should be given the opportunity and resources to set their child up for success through other educational choices.”
The court ruled that legislators were not fulfilling a duty under the state constitution to finance a suitable education for each of the state’s 458,000 public school students. The justices said evidence in the case showed that significant percentages of students, particularly minority pupils, are not proficient in reading and math.
In Wichita, community activist Djuan Wash, the father of a 9-year-old girl, said such problems create “a cycle of poverty.” Other parents said they were pleased the court told lawmakers that the state’s current spending is inadequate.
“Absolutely they should spend more,” said Angie Sutton, a mother of two from Ottawa.
Yet the court’s unsigned opinion also said that it rejects “any litmus test that relies on specific funding levels,” leaving the exact increase open to debate. The state now spends about $8,900 per student on aid to public schools.
The lawsuit was filed by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts. If lawmakers adopted their figure for an annual increase, state aid would rise by more than $1,700 per student.
Many legislators weren’t ready to be pinned down. Even Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and an ardent supporter of higher education spending, suggested an annual increase of about $800 per student, or $367 million.
The justices also struck down a 2015 law that junked a per-student formula for distributing the state’s aid in favor of “block grants” for the local districts.
The legal disputes over school funding have pitted the seven justices, six of whom were appointed by Democratic or moderate Republican governors, against Brownback and other conservative Republicans who had controlled the rest of state government.
Past rulings forced lawmakers to increase aid to poor school districts and helped spur an effort in last year’s election to oust four of the justices in yes-or-no votes on whether they stayed on the court for another six years. The ouster attempts were unsuccessful, and voters frustrated with the state’s budget woes ousted two dozen of Brownback’s conservative allies from the Legislature, giving Democrats and GOP moderates more power.