Reactions to Kansas school finance ruling vary across political spectrum

? Kansas lawmakers, education advocates and other state officials reacted to Tuesday’s school finance ruling, with some saying they were elated, others disappointed, and still others not surprised.

“No surprises,” said Rep. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City. “A lot of us have been saying for several years that there’s nothing wrong with formula, but that base aid per pupil wasn’t adequate. We’ll have to wait and see how the Supreme Court weighs in on the issue.”

A three-judge panel on Tuesday said that current funding for public schools in Kansas is unconstitutional because the state isn’t spending enough money to produce the academic outcomes required under state law.

The judges pointed to the large number of students, particularly minority and economically disadvantaged students, and said that number has been growing since the state began cutting funding in 2009 in the wake of the Great Recession.

The panel did not order the state to increase spending by a specific amount, but it suggested that the additional amount needed could range from $548 million to as much as $770 million a year.

“We’re currently funding schools at the same level we did in 1992 — when I was in second grade. As a parent, I find that unacceptable.,” said Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence.

“I’m prepared to have thoughtful conversations about how we address the court’s decision, but am genuinely concerned that the governor and his allies in and around the capitol are unwilling to do the same.”

Rep. Ron Ryckman, Jr., R-Olathe, who will chair the House Appropriations Committee in the coming session, said he was disappointed in the tone of the opinion, but said lawmakers will probably wait until after the Kansas Supreme Court reviews the case before addressing the funding issue.

“It’s too early to fully digest what they’re trying to say or what they’re asking us to do,” he said.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, accused the panel of taking “a very political and antagonistic posture” in the ruling.

“Clearly, the lower court departed from the generally constructive tone that was set in the Supreme Court’s initial order,” Wagle said.

Same ruling as before

The panel first ruled in 2013 that funding was inadequate because it didn’t cover the actual cost of providing all the educational services required under state and federal laws. But in March, the Supreme Court rejected that decision and remanded the case to the panel, with instructions to judge the adequacy of funding on the basis of specific academic outcomes.

In its ruling Tuesday, the panel said the different standard made no difference, and it stuck by its original decision holding that current school funding is unconstitutional.

Kansas Families for Education, a grassroots group based in Johnson County that lobbies for more education spending, said its members were pleased with the decision.

“We have watched the Legislature reduce school funding back to 1992 levels and we’ve watched rising class sizes, closure of buildings and the elimination of programs,” said KFE board member Al Frisby. “As a retired science teacher, I know that without adequate resources from the state, we can’t meet the needs of all our students.”

In recent weeks, Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican leaders of the Legislature have said they want to overhaul the entire school finance formula, arguing that it is too complicated and unsustainable.

Brownback issued a statement saying he still believes it’s time to overhaul the formula.

“I continue to believe that restructuring the school funding formula and implementing education policy reforms is critical not only to getting more money into our classrooms but also improving student achievement,” the Republican governor said. “I will be working with legislative leadership to address the best path forward.”

Formula or funding?

But others said that would be a mistake at this point, especially before the Supreme Court issues a final opinion.

“Today’s decision confirms what I have said many times in the past — the school finance formula is not broken, it is underfunded,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “Governor Brownback’s largest cut to K-12 funding in Kansas history is threatening the quality of education our children are receiving wherever they may reside in our state.”

The Kansas Association of School Boards also said changing the formula would not fix the problem.

“The three-judge panel’s decision reaffirms what Kansas school board members have been saying: Current K-12 funding is inadequate to accomplish their mission,” the organization said. “We urge the legislature and governor to raise the funds necessary to ensure all Kansas students are prepared for success when they graduate high school.”

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, also said he needed more time to study the opinion.

“We are disappointed by today’s ruling by the panel, which in areas seems in tension with the Kansas Supreme Court’s guidance,” Schmidt said. “We are assessing the opinion and evaluating all our options.”