A judge's opinion has left the Kansas governor and Legislature little choice but to examine the state's school finance system.
Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock is inviting state lawmakers to look at the system for funding public schools in a different way.
And, as judges sometimes do, he is adding a little incentive -- and a deadline -- to his invitation. If the Kansas governor and legislators don't produce a plan that corrects the unequal disbursement of education funds in the state by July 1, he'll do it for them and deliver the bill -- a bill of as much as $1 billion -- to the state.
On Tuesday, Bullock declared that the state's school finance law did not meet the requirement in the Kansas Constitution to "make suitable provisions for finance of the educational interests of the state." The shortcomings identified by the judge fall into two general categories.
First, state funds are allocated without regard to or analysis of the needs of the state's K-12 schools. In a traditional budget process, those requiring money put together funding requests that then are considered by the funding agency. Local school districts make no budget requests to the state, which decides how much money they will get. From one year to the next, state government raises or lowers per-pupil funding, but those decisions are based more on the money that is available or on growth in the economy, than on the needs of the district.
Bullock seemed even more concerned, however, about the inequities that exist in the current funding system. He cited huge funding discrepancies from one district to another similarly sized district and wrote, "The Legislature has not justified this enormous disparity with evidence of any rational basis."
Students who come from low-income households or don't speak English require more instruction and, therefore, more money for an adequate education, Bullock said, adding that the state's contention that funding doesn't affect classroom achievement "won't hunt in Dodge City."
The judge suggested that the state might need to raise its education budget by as much as $1 billion to adequately meet the needs of K-12 students. That's a jaw-dropping amount of money to state legislators, who expect another tight budget year, but it would be a mistake for them to dismiss the judge's opinion as impossible or ridiculous.
If the governor and the Legislature fail to at least make a good-faith effort to boost education funding and correct inequities in the funding formula, the state may find itself looking for millions of dollars of additional funds for education in the state coffers next July. Such a scenario would spell disaster for the state, which then would have to make drastic cuts in other budget areas.
Kansas students consistently are above the national average on standardized tests, but Judge Bullock is saying the state must do better if it hopes to meet federal requirements and correct funding equities. Bullock is right that more money isn't irrelevant to the quality of education in the state, but, by the same token, the state doesn't have unlimited funds to spend on education or anything else. The primary consideration should be fairness, that whatever the state spends on education must be distributed in a way that is equitable and sensitive to the special challenges facing some students and districts.
State officials have promised to appeal Bullock's decision, but it was unclear when that appeal would come. Regardless of the outcome of the litigation, the governor's office has promised, a school finance proposal will be part of the governor's budget.
Judge Bullock's decision may or may not stand, but it will be virtually impossible for lawmakers to ignore. If nothing else, it almost guarantees that discussion of how to fund public schools in Kansas will be on the front burner for the 2004 legislative session.