Topeka An education finance plan headed to the Kansas Supreme Court will widen the gap between wealthy and poor school districts, critics say.
And that means the court is likely to tell the Legislature to try again, or come up with its own plan.
"This plan is an invitation for the Supreme Court to take over our schools," said Kathy Cook, executive director of Kansas Families United for Public Education. "This plan is morally bankrupt, as it increases the disparity between districts."
On Jan. 3, the Kansas Supreme Court said lawmakers failed their constitutional duty to "make suitable provisions for finance" of public schools. The court said the Legislature needed to increase funding and distribute those funds more equitably. It gave lawmakers until April 12 to fix the system.
The court's opinion followed a trend across the country where state Supreme Courts have ruled that schools must be funded equitably and at an adequate level.
An adequate level, the courts have said, means that states must change the way they fund schools. They must determine the actual cost of providing an adequate education and fund that level instead of funding schools based on political compromises.
In Kansas, a consultant's study said Kansas should spend about $1 billion more yearly for schools, while a Kansas Department of Education survey put the figure at closer to $600 million.
The legislative plan returned to the court would increase state funding as much as $125.2 million.
In similar lawsuits throughout the country, courts determine whether the state "has made a good-faith effort," according to Mark Fermanich, a school finance expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
If the court rejects the plan, he said, "perhaps it will appoint a special master or become more involved in putting together a remedy," he said.
Local tax increases
In addition to a statewide funding increase, the plan would allow local property tax increases that could add as much as nearly $500 million.
It would allow districts to increase property taxes to raise up to 30 percent of their general fund budget. The current maximum is 25 percent.
That reliance on local property tax increases makes the school finance system more unfair because wealthier districts can more easily afford to increase their local taxes to benefit students in their districts, according to Alan Rupe, the Wichita attorney who represented schools that sued the state.
In addition to raising the cap on the local option budget, or LOB, 17 school districts, including Lawrence, could raise it another 5 percent and dedicate that tax money to teacher salaries.
"The affluent school districts in Johnson County and northeast Kansas will be able to raise taxes $25 million. In terms of all at-risk students across the state, the legislative proposal provides $25 million," Rupe said.
Lawrence school board member Sue Morgan said she would welcome opportunities to pay local teachers more, but that she was concerned about the proposal.
"I certainly am looking for ways to get back into a competitive situation with our teachers," Morgan said. But, "I can't imagine that the court would not shoot this down. It flies in the face of what they said."
But supporters of the plan predict that the state Supreme Court will allow the local property taxes as a component of school funding.
"The court was silent on LOBs," said House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka.
The court did not address LOBs directly in its January opinion. It noted, however, that when the current school finance formula took effect in 1992, local option budgets were supposed to fund "extras."
Now, the court said, "some school districts have been forced to use local option budgets to finance general education."
Asked whether the court would accept the Legislature's proposal, Mays said, "There is no way to tell what the court will do."