Kansas school districts now know how much money they'll have to work with this year, but it's likely that the final chapter of the school finance case that has been in the courts since 1999 has not yet been written.
The Kansas Supreme Court announced Friday that the $541 million school finance plan approved by the Kansas Legislature this year satisfied its previous order to increase education funding. Because of that, it dismissed the lawsuit filed in 1999 by parents and administrators in Dodge City and Salina claiming that the state's school finance law was unconstitutional.
However, the question of whether the new school finance formula satisfies the state's constitutional responsibility to "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state" remains open.
The court said Friday that it already had ruled that the finance law that was in effect in 1999 was unconstitutional because of the level and inequity of funding throughout the state. However, that formula no longer exists, the Supreme Court ruled, and "this court cannot engage in the fact finding necessary to determine the constitutionality of S.B. 549," the new school finance law.
If the original plaintiffs in Dodge City and Salina or anyone else in Kansas doesn't think the new law meets constitutional muster, their solution is to file a new lawsuit and make their case. A couple of justices dissented on this point, contending that rather than dismissing the case, the court should have sent it back to the district court for consideration.
In her dissent, Justice Carol Beier agreed with her colleagues that the Legislature had made "substantial efforts to improve the adequacy and equity of our school finance system," but added, "because I am unwilling to graft a 'good enough for government work' phrase" onto the state constitution, she would have preferred the case be returned to district court.
The court's newest member, Justice Eric Rosen, concurred with the majority opinion but found fault with the formula's dependence on Local Option Budgets, an additional levy that must be approved on the local level, to achieve the state's funding goals. He noted that if LOB money is necessary "to fund a district's basic educational costs, and a district or its voters choose not to adopt LOB funding : the legislature has not met its constitutional duty to those children in that district."
Some observers had indicated the court might want to find a way to dismiss this case to relieve some of the political tension between the state's judicial and legislative branches, and particularly in the matter of Justice Lawton Nuss, who removed himself from the school finance case after admitting to discussing the issue with two state senators. Although the case was dismissed, the arguments raised by the justices indicate a thorough examination of the issues and no apparent concern for the political fallout of their decision.
State legislators and the governor struggled mightily with the school finance issue for the last two sessions, and their work has been acknowledged by the court, which declared, "There is no question that the legislature has substantially responded to our concerns." However, the justices' ruling also has raised issues that could set the stage for further court action, especially if legislators backslide on their commitment to funding the state's public schools.