Kansas Supreme Court’s school finance ruling offers few instructions for fixing law

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, third from left, lead justices to their seats to hear arguments on a school funding case before the Kansas Supreme Court in Topeka, Kan., Tuesday, July 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

? Kansas lawmakers and education officials are now sifting through the Kansas Supreme Court’s latest school finance ruling, trying to figure out what the court wants in order to make the system both constitutionally adequate and equitable.

In a unanimous and stinging decision Monday, the court said the state had failed to meet its own burden of proof to show that the funding included in the new law, nearly $200 million above previous funding levels, would be enough to ensure all students have access to a proper education.

It also raised several issues about fairness and equity in the way other kinds of money are distributed.

But as in previous rulings in the current case, Gannon v. Kansas, the court did not say how much money would be sufficient, and it offered very few instructions about how to solve the equity issues.

Those were the main topics of discussion Tuesday morning of a webinar sponsored by the Kansas Association of School Boards that was streamed live to school officials across the state.

“They are not saying the Legislature did not put in enough money,” said Mark Tallman, KASB’s main lobbyist. “They are saying the Legislature did not show that the money they put in would be adequate to help students reach those standards, particularly in light of other studies that have been done which suggest the number should be higher.”

The court did note that the “base” per-pupil aid of $4,006 provided this year under the new law is lower than the $4,012 the state provided in 2010. And that figure actually represented a cut that was enacted in the wake of the national economic downturn at that time, a cut that prompted the current lawsuit.

The court also noted that base per-pupil aid continued to be cut in subsequent years, hitting a low of $3,780 starting in 2012, while the school finance case was still being litigated.

The state argued that the $4,006 figure — which rises to $4,128 next year and is indexed to inflation after that — came from what lawmakers called a “successful school model” that examined spending by 41 school districts where student performance greatly exceeds what would be expected, given the demographic makeup of the district.

But the court rejected that argument, saying the state provided only a few pages of documentation to support it. The justices also said that performing better than expected is not the same as performing well enough and that many of those model districts still had large numbers of students scoring below grade level in reading and math.

“They wanted to see how the funding, based on this model, was actually going to improve student performance,” KASB’s general counsel Donna Whiteman said during the webinar.

Based on state assessments in 2016, the most recent scores available, more than one-fourth of all students in Kansas scored below grade level in math, and 23 percent were below grade level in English language arts. Those numbers were significantly higher for African-American and Hispanic students, as well as students from lower-income households.

On equity issues, the court was a little more specific. The standard for passing the equity test, the court said, is that “school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.”

But in several areas, the court said, the new funding formula failed to meet that test.

For one thing, it said, the new law expanded the allowable uses of capital outlay funds, money usually reserved for big-ticket purchases, to include property and casualty insurance and utility costs, things the court said are usually considered general operating costs.

But because capital outlay funds are considered a limited-use pot of money, the state provides less “equalization aid,” subsidies for districts with less property wealth so they don’t have to levy higher property taxes to raise comparable amounts of money as wealthier districts.

By expanding the use of capital outlay money to include insurance and utility costs, the court said, wealthier districts would have an advantage over poor districts in raising money to pay for those expenses.

The court also took issue with provisions of the new law that raise the limits on how much districts can raise through local option budgets, or LOBs. In particular, the court said it was unfair that some districts could raise their LOBs to the new limit, subject to protest petition, while others would be required to put it to a public vote.

Finally, the court objected to changes in the way equalization aid for LOBs is calculated and the way funding for at-risk students is calculated.

“I’m not surprised at some of the things. We’ve got work to do, and quite a bit of work to do,” said Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, who served on the House panel that wrote the new plan. “I’m pleased that they’re not closing schools, but I’m disappointed in some of the things, but I’m not surprised. We’ve got work to do, but coming up with resources is the biggest thing that needs to be addressed. It’s a big lift in an election year.”

The court essentially said lawmakers do not have to make any changes for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. But the court expects to see briefs about the Legislature’s plan for correcting the formula no later than April 30. And it plans to hold oral arguments on the Legislature’s next plan May 22.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, called on the Legislative Coordinating Council to appoint a special committee to begin work immediately on addressing the court’s ruling. That group next meets on Friday.

Republican leaders in the Senate, however, were harshly critical of the court’s decision and said they have no intention of raising taxes again, as they did in 2017, to fund an increase in school spending.