TOPEKA, Kan. >> The Kansas Supreme Court ruled today that legislators did not increase spending on the state’s public schools enough this year, hinting in its opinion that lawmakers fell hundreds of millions of dollars short a year of providing a suitable education for every child.
The decision puts the state in a tough spot: Another big school spending increase will force it to either make significant cuts elsewhere in the budget or raise taxes less than a year after the GOP-controlled Legislature rolled back past income tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
The court rejected the state’s arguments that a new law phasing in a $293 million increase in funding over two years was enough to provide a suitable education for each of the state’s 458,000 students. Four school districts that sued the state over education funding in 2010 had argued that the increase was at least $600 million short of what was necessary over two years.
Brownback called the decision “yet another regrettable chapter in the never ending cycle of litigation” over public education, adding, “The court should not substitute its decision for that of the Legislature.”
Some Republican legislative leaders were defiant. The Senate’s top three GOP leaders issued a joint statement accusing the court of showing “clear disrespect for the legislative process” and jeopardizing “the rest of state government.”
“Raising taxes to fund this unrealistic demand is not going to happen,” Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita; Vice President Jeff Longbine, of Emporia, and Majority Leader Jim Denning, of Overland Park, said in the statement.
Lawmakers increased income taxes this year to raise $1.2 billion over two years, but much of the new revenue went to close projected budget shortfalls.
In its unsigned opinion, the seven-member court told legislators to enact a new, constitutional school funding law before July 2018, without setting a specific target for how much they must spend. That’s a hard deadline — the court ordered more legal arguments for May and said it would rule by June 30 — but in two additional short opinions, three justices together said they would have mandated quicker action.
“Kansas has failed an entire generation of its children,” Justice Lee Johnson wrote in one of the separate opinions.
The new law was a response to a ruling from the high court in March that the $4 billion a year the state had been spending on aid to its 286 school districts was inadequate. The figure was set to rise to $4.3 billion for the 2018-19 school year.
The court particularly focused in its March ruling on helping under-performing students because a quarter of the state’s students — and a higher percentage of poor and minority pupils — have been performing below their grade levels on standardized math and English tests.
When they sued the state, the Hutchinson and Wichita districts in south-central Kansas, the Dodge City district in western Kansas and the Kansas City, Kansas, district were concerned with the total amount of state spending. But they also questioned whether funding was distributed fairly so that students in poor districts do not fall too far behind students in wealthier ones.
The court concluded the law failed that equity test because of several provisions dealing with funding for programs for at-risk students and allowing districts to impose local property taxes to supplement state dollars.
Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the four school districts, called the ruling bittersweet. He said it confirmed that the districts had showed school funding to be inadequate, but he noted the court’s disagreements over how quickly lawmakers must fix the problems.
“Significant damage has already been done as the state continues to ignore its constitutional obligations,” he said in a statement.
Legislators who supported the new law noted that it boosted spending on programs to help at-risk children and fully financed all-day kindergarten. The court said such provisions were improvements, they were not enough.
The four school districts suing the state and Democratic legislators repeatedly pointed to a State Board of Education proposal to phase in an $893 million increase over two years as the minimum for what’s required. While the court avoided setting a target, it cited the figures used by the school districts — and others suggesting even higher spending — in its opinion.
“Today’s ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court comes as no surprise,” said Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat.
Kansas has been in and out of school funding lawsuits for several decades. The state constitution requires legislators to “make suitable provision for finance” of the state’s “educational interests,” and the Supreme Court has ruled it’s a requirement to ensure that all children receive a suitable education, regardless of whether they live in rich or poor areas.