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Topeka — A three-judge panel ruled Wednesday that the Kansas Legislature satisfied the demands of a recent Supreme Court ruling to equalize education funding between rich and poor school districts.
After a hearing that lasted about three hours, the judges said the additional $129 million that lawmakers added for equalization of capital outlay and local option budgets was sufficient to meet the standards that the Kansas Supreme Court handed down in March in the case of Gannon vs. Kansas.
But the court did not dismiss the equity portion of the lawsuit. Instead, the judges said they would "take no further action," which is one of the options the Supreme Court gave when it remanded the equity issue back to the trial court.
Alan Rupe, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case, said that leaves open the possibility that the court could reopen the issue if Kansas lawmakers fail to follow through on the funding they approved this spring — something the plaintiffs argued is a distinct possibility, given recent shortfalls in state revenues.
"It may be just me, but I see a history of the Legislature coming through with a program, then the courts dismissing the case, and then the Legislature backing out of what they said they'd do," Rupe said during oral arguments. "What's to keep the Legislature from backing out, either through allotment cuts or changing the legislation? It's trust and verify."
The panel also took no action on the larger, and more expensive, question in the case: whether the overall level of funding for public schools is sufficient to meet the Kansas Constitution's mandate that lawmakers "make suitable provision" for school finance.
In its first ruling in January 2013, the same three-judge panel said that cuts enacted since the start of the Great Recession had resulted in inadequate funding, and it ordered lawmakers to add an estimated $442 million in base funding for schools.
But in March, the Kansas Supreme Court overturned that part of the trial court's decision and sent it back to the lower court to be decided on a different standard.
The three-judge panel said today it had not yet decided whether to reopen hearings on that issue or decide the adequacy question based on evidence already in the record.
Today's ruling, which was delivered orally from the bench, dealt only with the equity portion of the lawsuit.
The case centered on cuts the state made to education funding starting in 2009 when revenues began to plummet in the wake of the Great Recession. In addition to a series of cuts in the base state aid formula, lawmakers and then-Gov. Mark Parkinson cut back or eliminated "equalization" funding, which subsidizes the capital outlay and local option budgets of less wealthy districts.
Plaintiffs in the case argued that the cuts fell disproportionately on the poorest districts that were entitled to the most equalization aid. Those districts either had to levy higher property taxes to generate the similar amounts of funding as their wealthier peers, or they cut funding for teacher salaries and other services, resulting in more crowded classrooms and fewer services like after-school tutoring.
Responding to the Supreme Court's decision, lawmakers this year added about $120 million in new funding through the equalization formula. They also authorized certain districts to increase their local option budgets beyond earlier limits, and they funded a small, $14 per-pupil increase in the base state aid formula.
Most of that money will come in the form of property tax relief for districts that will now get a larger share of their total funding from state aid. Only about $35 million represents new spending authority for local districts.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt said he was pleased with the court's decision.
“We are pleased the panel found the State has fully complied with the Supreme Court’s order to fully fund capital outlay and local option budget equalization and that no further action on equity is required," Schmidt said in a statement posted on his website. "We look forward to demonstrating in further proceedings that the State has also met its adequacy obligations as set forth by the Supreme Court.”