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School finance decision delayed until around New Year's

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A long-awaited decision in the pending school finance lawsuit will evidently wait a little longer.

Shawnee County District Judge Franklin Theis sent a letter to attorneys in the case Thursday saying there will be no decision until around the first of the year.

Theis is the presiding judge in a three-judge panel that heard the trail of the case last summer. At the end of closing arguments Aug. 29, Theis said a ruling would probably come in "60 to 90 days." That window expired at the end of November.

Plaintiffs in the case, a coalition of school districts known as Schools for Fair Funding, allege the state is under-funding public schools by as much as $1.5 billion a year. Under the Kansas Constitution, the legislature is required to make "suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."

In an earlier lawsuit in 2005, the Kansas Supreme Court declared funding levels at that time to be unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to increase school funding by about $853 million a year, phased in over three years. That raised the basic funding formula, known as "base state aid per-pupil" to $4,400 in the 2008-09 school year.

But districts never received the full amount that year because that's when the economy began to tank and revenues flowing into state coffers plummeted.

By the 2011-12 school year, base funding had fallen to $3,780 per pupil, the lowest level since the 1990s.

For the current year, lawmakers added $58 per pupil, raising the base amount to $3,838.

During the trial, plaintiffs argued that those cuts have had a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority students, forcing districts to lay off teachers and increase class sizes, and to cut or cancel programs like all-day kindergarten and after-school tutoring. That, they argued, has translated into flat or declining test scores among those students.

Attorneys defending he state countered that the state has met its duty under the constitution because all 285 school districts are fully accredited and are providing all the classes and programs required by law. In other words, all students have an equal opportunity to receive a suitable education, even if they don't achieve equal outcomes.

The state also argued that there is no statistical correlation between increasing education spending and raising student achievement.

The trial took place over most of the month of June with dozens of witnesses providing testimony and more than a million pages of depositions, motions and pleadings entered into the record.

A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could have a profound impact on state finances and would almost certainly lead to more heated debate over the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.

Just before the trial got underway, Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature approved a multibillion-dollar package of tax cuts that many experts believe will result in large budget deficits and force further cuts in education spending in the next two or three years.

Whichever way the court rules, however, the decision will almost certainly be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, where a final ruling could take until sometime in 2014.

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