Education ace

The state’s constitutional requirement to “make suitable provision for finance” of Kansas public schools may create a challenging budget situation for state legislators next year.

When it comes to state funding, K-12 schools in Kansas have an ace in the hole.

Although the Kansas Constitution allows spending for various state needs, that spending is mandated for the state’s public schools. According to the constitution, “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

School districts across the state made use of their special funding status in 1999 by filing a lawsuit claiming the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to properly fund public schools. Now, they are asking the Kansas Supreme Court to revisit that case, which resulted in 2005 and 2006 orders to increase state funding to public schools.

The concerns of 70 school districts involved in the coalition requesting the review certainly are valid. Although the court’s earlier rulings resulted in significant increases in the state’s base aid per pupil, budget cuts instituted this year have reduced that amount to a figure below what the Supreme Court found to be inadequate in 2006. The districts say that not only is unconscionable, it is unconstitutional.

Many legislators would argue that the decrease is purely a result of the national economic downturn that has put a severe squeeze on state revenues. That obviously is a major issue, but school districts and others can point to tax cuts and tax exemptions that seem to have exacerbated the problem.

Asking the Supreme Court to revisit the earlier case is an appropriate first step. Districts are seeking the court’s support for increased funding without incurring the additional costs of litigating a new lawsuit.

However, if the court upholds the districts’ contention that their current funding level is unconstitutional, it will be interesting to see how the Legislature reacts. Public schools clearly are not the only entity suffering extreme hardship in the current budget situation. Higher education spending has been cut to the bone. Waiting lists are growing for Kansans needing public assistance. Reduced Medicaid reimbursements are hitting care providers who likely will respond by reducing their services to Medicaid patients.

K-12 schools have the backing of a constitution that says “the legislature shall” provide for their funding, but will that mean even greater hardship for state-supported activities not mentioned in the constitution?

State school districts are hurting, and it’s hard to fault them for playing their constitutional card. However, a Supreme Court ruling in their favor would produce a funding challenge that state legislators would be hard-pressed to address fairly.