Brownback signs education equity funding bill; court must now decide if measure satisfies the Kansas Constitution

In this file photo from March 22, 2016, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signs legislation at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna).

Topeka —  Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced Thursday that he has signed a school funding bill aimed at satisfying a Kansas Supreme Court order to make funding among the state’s 286 school districts more equitable, saying he wants “to keep our schools open and ensure our students continue to have access to a quality education.”

His action means the court now must decide whether the bill satisfies the Kansas Constitution’s requirement for equitable funding. If not — and many critics of the bill say it doesn’t — the court has indicated it may shut down the public school system on July 1 unless lawmakers can come up with a different plan before then.

Such a ruling could inflame tensions that already exist between the legislative and judicial branches of state government, which Brownback alluded to in his statement after signing the bill.

“The legislature consists of 165 elected representatives of the people,” he said. “I do not take their judgment lightly. This bill is the result of a delicate legislative compromise – one that I respectfully endorse and that the Court should review with appropriate deference.”

Within hours of the governor’s announcement, Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed a notice with the Supreme Court, submitting the new law as the Legislature’s response to the court’s order in February. In that filing, Schmidt also urged the court to act quickly.

“The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn sine die on June 1, 2016, and it would be useful to provide budgetary certainty to school districts as they prepare for the upcoming fiscal year,” Schmidt said.

The bill redistributes about $40 million in so-called “equalization aid,” money the state distributes to districts with less property wealth than others in order to hold down their property tax mill levies that fund districts’ local option budgets and capital outlay funds.

In February, the court struck down the equalization formula lawmakers enacted last year, saying the aid must be distributed in a way so that all districts can access substantially equal educational programs with substantially equal tax efforts.

But in a compromise aimed at satisfying conservative lawmakers who were reluctant to spend more money on education, the bill essentially takes equalization aid away from wealthier districts, but then gives it back to them in the form of a “hold harmless” grant that goes back into their general operating fund.

Critics have said that while the bill may equalize the LOB and capital outlay aid, it does so by dis-equalizing the block grants that make up the bulk of school districts’ general operating funds. It also allows districts that lose aid for their local option budgets to raise local property taxes to make up the difference.

“It is pure smoke and mirrors,” said John Robb, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit Gannon v. Kansas. “It gives all districts the exact same money they had this year, with minor arithmetic anomalies. It does not change the distribution between wealthy and poor districts. It does not improve equity. The equity gap even gets worse with the rich districts’ ability to backfill the lowered equalization formula with new local dollars. It fixed nothing and made it worse.”

Anticipating that the court might find part of the bill unconstitutional, lawmakers inserted a “severability” clause that says if any part is voided, the rest of the bill would still stand.

The two provisions thought to be the most vulnerable are the “hold harmless” provision, which could cost the Lawrence school district $1.7 million if it is taken out, and the provision allowing districts to raise local property taxes.

The bill passed both chambers largely on party-line votes: 32-5 in the Senate and 93-31 in the House.

All members of the Douglas County delegation in the Legislature voted against the bill except Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, voted “pass,” meaning she was present but did not vote yes or no.

Brownback actually signed the bill Wednesday, and the administration did not say why he took an extra day to announce it publicly. The 10-day deadline for him to sign or veto the bill would have expired Friday.

The court has not indicated when it may take up a review of the new law. But legislators rushed to finalize the bill before they adjourned for their five-week spring break, hoping that the court will issue a decision before they return April 27 for the start of their wrap-up session.

Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards said he hopes the Supreme Court rules quickly on the bill.

“If it is struck down, we hope legislators will tackle the issue as quickly as possible to avoid a possible closure of schools this summer,” he said.