State officials probably weren’t surprised Friday that the Kansas Supreme Court concluded that the state isn’t spending enough on K-12 education.
The question now is how the governor and state legislators will respond to the challenge set forth in Friday’s ruling.
The ruling looked at two main facets of “suitable” school funding: whether state funding for K-12 schools was adequate and whether it was equitable. The equity issue was more or less resolved by Friday’s ruling, but the potentially far-more-costly adequacy issue may take longer.
First, the justices agreed with the lower court ruling that cuts made during the Great Recession to two state funds created inequitable funding to the state’s poorer school districts. One of those funds is used to subsidize local option budgets for those districts; the other supplements capital outlay budgets. Restoring those funds to their required level will cost the state in the neighborhood of $129 million on top of the $3 billion the state has budgeted for the 2014-15 school year.
By July 1, the Legislature must either approve that amount of money or some lesser amount that a special three-judge panel deems sufficient to resolve the equity issue among school districts.
On the adequacy issue, the Supreme Court wasn’t satisfied with the standard the lower court used to determine what constituted adequate funding so it returned that issue to the three-judge panel for further consideration. The court set no deadline on their deliberations and it’s uncertain whether the panel will offer a recommendation in time for it to be considered during the current legislative session.
However, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case predicted the results would mirror a previous ruling, which ordered the state to increase K-12 funding by $440 million.
Where will the state find $129 million and perhaps much more to meet the court mandate? More taxes? Income tax reductions were approved last year. Sales tax was kept at an elevated level and would be an unpopular target, but perhaps not as unpopular as any increases in property taxes at either the state or local level.
Barring new taxes, legislators would have to look at shifting funds from other parts of the budget, which probably has some state agencies worried. The governor already dipped into state reserves and the highway fund to balance his proposed budget for this year, so there isn’t much flexibility there. Friday’s ruling should make state university officials nervous. During a visit last fall to Kansas University, one legislator warned KU officials, “You will take some serious pain,” if the Supreme Court called for more K-12 funding. Other state agencies likely are in the same boat.
Gov. Brownback and legislative leaders pledged on Friday to address the court’s ruling. How that will occur remains to be seen.
At least the school finance issue now should focus the attention of legislators who have spent too much time this session on issues of far less importance to the state.