Kansas court orders more state spending on schools, suggests at least $548 million more per year

? A three-judge panel in Topeka ruled Tuesday that overall funding for public education in Kansas is inadequate and therefore unconstitutional.

The judges also said that the system of local option budgets, as it’s being used now, is also unconstitutional because underfunding by the state has forced districts to use their local budgets, which are raised through local property taxes, to meet basic state educational requirements instead of funding local enhancement programs as they were originally intended.

And while the panel did not order the Legislature to increase funding by a specific dollar amount, it suggested that at least $548 million in additional base funding would be needed to meet the constitutional standard of adequacy.

That’s how much it would cost to raise the base state aid formula to $4,654 per pupil, the inflation-adjusted amount the panel originally ordered in its first opinion in January 2013.

The judges acknowledged that they did not have the authority to order a specific amount of money, but said the current level of funding is unconstitutional and lawmakers must correct the shortfall.

But the judges also suggested the amount of additional funding needed could be as high as $770 million, putting the base aid formula at $4,980 per pupil. That’s the inflation-adjusted funding level that lawmakers originally approved for the 2009-2010 academic year, before the state began making cuts in the wake of the Great Recession.

In their 117-page opinion, the judges pointed to declining test scores as evidence that funding is in adequate. In the years following the last school finance case in 2004-2005, they said, test scores rose as spending levels increased. But within two years after the state began cutting education funding in the wake of the Great Recession, scores began to decline.

“(M)oney was making a difference,” the judges noted.

Now, they said, if all the 58,218 students in Kansas who score non-proficient in reading were put into one school district, it would make up the largest district in the state, surpassing the Wichita school district, which has 44,936 students.

And if all the economically disadvantaged students who are non-proficient in either reading or math were put together, the judges said, they “could have filled nearly every seat in every school in every school district in every county with an eastern border beginning west of Salina.”

By law, the decision will automatically be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court. John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that under a normal schedule, it could take the Supreme Court up to a year to issue a final decision.

If upheld, Tuesday’s decision means Kansas lawmakers will face a daunting challenge in the next few years because that only adds to the already existing budget shortfalls, estimated at more than $600 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

But the court said the state’s financial condition does not take away from its duty to fund education.

“Nevertheless, we understand the self-imposed fiscal dilemma now facing the State of Kansas, both with or without this Opinion,” the judges wrote. “Since the obligations here declared emanate from our Kansas Constitution, avoidance is not an option.”

The judges essentially repeated what they said in 2013 when they ruled that current funding levels were not enough to meet the actual cost of providing a suitable education. In that ruling, the judges relied on cost studies performed by outside consultants and the Legislature’s own Division of Post Audit.

That was the standard the Kansas Supreme Court established in 2004 in an earlier school finance case, Montoy vs. Kansas.

However, when the current case was appealed, the Supreme Court changed direction and said adequate funding should be measured using what are called the Rose standards, a set of educational outcomes that show a person is reasonably prepared to live, work and be a full participant in a modern society.

But in their ruling Tuesday, the judges said the change in standards made no difference because educational outcomes were implicit in estimating the cost of an education.

“The Rose factors, as well articulated as they are, nevertheless, seem to only express but the commonsense foundation for any enlightened K-12 educational system,” the judges wrote.

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