Monday's Kansas Supreme Court ruling made it clear that increased funding and improved distribution of funding to K-12 schools is the Kansas Legislature's top priority this year.
The Kansas Supreme Court has set a new deadline and offered some additional guidance, but the task it has set before the Kansas governor and Legislature essentially is the same one outlined a year ago by Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock: Put more money into K-12 education and distribute it in a more equitable way.
Last year, the state appealed Bullock's ruling, giving legislators an excuse to sit back and do nothing. If the 2005 legislative session results in the same kind of inaction, the state will find out exactly how far the judiciary will go to see that its instructions are carried out.
Like Bullock, the supreme court is retaining jurisdiction on the school finance case, giving the Legislature until April 12 to enact corrective legislation. If it is not satisfied with the state's progress by that time, the court can take action of its own, up to and including a judicial takeover of the school finance system.
The justices issued an abbreviated version of their opinion Monday to get the basic document on the record before the legislative session opens next week. Although the court differed with Bullock on some points, it upheld his basic contention that the lower court's "findings are sufficient to support the conclusion that the legislature has failed to 'make suitable provisions for finance' of the public school system" as required by the Kansas Constitution.
Some legislators have argued that the state hasn't adequately defined "suitable provisions for finance" or "suitable education." However, the court said the state constitution and the 2003 legislation that triggered the Augenblick & Myers study identified standards that the study subsequently found the state had failed to meet. The Augenblick & Myers study arrived at the $1 billion figure, also cited by Bullock, as the estimated amount by which Kansas needed to raise its school funding.
The court also cited several statutory changes that had altered the way the state allocates school funds since the passage of the school finance formula and noted that, although local option budgets were intended "to fund 'extra' expenses, some school districts have been forced to use local option budgets to finance general education." That includes Lawrence and many other districts.
Now the ball is in the Legislature's court. The justices said there are many ways to mend the school finance flaws, but all of them will take money -- and more. "It is clear increased funding will be required," the opinion said, "however, increased funding may not in and of itself make the financing formula constitutionally suitable." How those funds are distributed is another matter, the court said, noting the district court's finding "that the financing formula was not based upon actual costs to educate children but was instead based on former spending levels and political compromise."
Although about any state legislation involves a certain amount of "political compromise," the contention that school funding is based more on tradition and politics than on actual educational costs doesn't set well with most Kansans.
After seeing her proposal for increased education funding declared dead on arrival in the Legislature last year, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has told state legislators she is awaiting their alternative proposal. Doing nothing is not an option; it's time for legislators to roll up their sleeves and get to work on this important issue. House Speaker Doug Mays had it right a couple of weeks ago: "This session is about education."