Topeka Democrats and public school advocates in Kansas were ecstatic Thursday over the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision that struck down the current “block grant” system of funding schools as inadequate and unconstitutional.
But in sharp contrast to similar court decisions in the past, Thursday’s decision in Gannon vs. Kansas produced only muted responses from Republican leaders in Kansas.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office defended the state throughout the litigation, issued only a muted response after the decision was announced.
“The people’s elected representatives in the Legislature face difficult decisions in the coming weeks,” he said. “In addressing the system’s adequacy, the Legislature must take care to preserve the equity in distribution of funds that the court previously upheld.”
“One thing is clear,” he added. “The State’s interest in bringing this litigation to an end can best be met by a bold legislative response, enacted swiftly, squarely targeting the constitutional defects the court identified.”
Gov. Sam Brownback, who was sharply critical of the court for some of its earlier rulings, said he agreed with the part of Thursday’s ruling that said many Kansas children currently are not receiving a suitable education. He then turned that into a springboard to argue in favor of “school choice” measures such as charter schools or private school vouchers.
“Furthermore, the time has come to equip parents of struggling students with the power they need to determine the best education for their child, Brownback said in a statement late Thursday. “If they believe a quality education is not possible in their local public school, they should be given the opportunity and resources to set their child up for success through other educational choices.”
But Thursday’s decision was vastly different from previous decision in that it did not directly order lawmakers to increase funding, but only set a June 30 deadline for them to pass a funding system that would meet constitutional muster, a deadline lawmakers had already imposed on themselves in 2015 when they enacted the temporary, two-year block grant system to begin with.
After another school finance ruling in 2005, when the court ordered a massive increase in school funding, it prompted a special session that 12 days while conservatives in the House dug in their heels, threatening to defy the court’s order and daring the court to close public schools.
And as recently as 2014, in his State of the State address just before the court issued its first decision in the Gannon case, Brownback aimed remarks directly at the justices who were seated in the room, declaring, “Let us resolve that our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who was a harsh critic of earlier court rulings on school finance, did not criticize Thursday’s decision, saying it confirmed that “legislators are the state’s chief policy makers and money appropriators.”
“I look forward to working with my colleagues in both Chambers to get a bill to the Governor’s desk that puts the needs of students first. Educating our children is imperative to our state’s success, and it is our duty to provide Kansas students with the resources they need to thrive,” she said.
Conservative opposition to the court’s earlier rulings were also an element of unsuccessful campaigns in 2014 and 2016 to unseat certain justices who were standing for retention in those elections.
Ryan Wright, who led a pro-court counter campaign called Kansans for Fair Courts, issued a statement Thursday praising the most recent decision.
“In November, voters sent a strong message to Governor Brownback and his allies to stop playing politics with our children’s education, by retaining all five justices to the Kansas Supreme Court,” Wright said. “It’s time to bring this issue to a close, fund our schools and solve this problem.”
Lawrence school district officials also had no immediate reaction to the decision. When asked for a comment, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said she and Superintendent Kyle Hayden, “have not had time to review the decision.”
Eudora school district superintendent Steve Splichal, however, praised the decision, saying it is now up the the Legislature to respond.
“While it will take time to see how legislators address this ruling and develop a new finance formula, today is reason to celebrate,” he said. “Today marks a critical moment in our state’s commitment to great public schools in Kansas, which began generations earlier.”
Last fall, the Kansas State Board of Education submitted a budget request that members said was intended to address earlier rulings in the Gannon case that said adequacy of funding should be measured by the educational outcomes it produces. That budget request called for $841 million in additional K-12 education spending over the next two fiscal years.
On Thursday, board chairman Jim Porter of Fredonia and vice chair Kathy Busch of Wichita issued a joint statement saying, “Based on today’s Supreme Court ruling, it appears the FY 2018 and 2019 budgets as submitted by the state board are consistent with the court’s ruling.”
The conservative Kansas Policy Institute said it wasn’t surprised by the ruling because the block grant formula was intended to be only temporary anyway.
“With low income children two to three grade levels behind their higher income peers, and stagnating achievement overall, we must demand accountability of schools to deliver better educational opportunities to our children,” KPI president Dave Trabert said.
Democratic leaders were more quick to respond to the decision, saying the decision only confirmed what they had argued for many years, that public schools in Kansas are being grossly under-funded.
“You’re only in first grade one time. You’re only a senior in high school one time. We have to get this right, and we have to do it right now,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said. “The future of Kansas children depends on it.”
House Democratic Leader Jim Ward of Wichita also said the decision was expected.
“This is no surprise, but a great victory for our Kansas school children,” he said. “Now it’s time for the Legislature to get to work, do our jobs, and ensure that we fulfill the order set forth by the Kansas Supreme Court.
Kansas Families for Education, a group that supported Democratic and moderate Republican candidates in the 2016 elections, also said it was pleased with the decision.
“It has now become abundantly clear that Kansas must turn away from the road to ruin that the Brownback tax policy has been leading us on for too long and return to responsible budgeting that allows us to fund our priorities,” said KFE board member Chris Cindric of Overland Park.