Kansas high court: School funding unconstitutional

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 7, 2014 at 5:31 pm •  Published: March 7, 2014
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas must spend more money on its public schools, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday in a decision that could jeopardize Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's desire to make his state a tax-cutting template for the nation.

The high court's ruling, which found that Kansas' school funding isn't constitutional, came in a 2010 lawsuit filed by parents and school districts. Instead of balking, Brownback and other leaders of the state's GOP-dominated government said they were pleased because the decision stopped short of telling legislators exactly how much the state must spend on its schools overall, leaving that responsibility to a lower court.

"It was not an unreasonable decision," Senate President Susan Wagle said. Republican leaders also believe the court left the Legislature substantial leeway in providing adequate aid to poor school districts and pledged to get it done before the session adjourns in late April or early May.

Education advocates and attorneys for the parents and school districts saw the decision as a rebuke to the GOP-led state and in line with past court decisions that strongly and specifically laid out how much needed to be allocated to provide adequate education for every child.

"This decision is an important one in sending a message to states across the nation that need to reform their financing systems to get their house in order," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark, N.J.-based Education Law Center, which filed a brief in the Kansas case.

The case has broader implications beyond the classroom: Kansas enacted sweeping cuts to income taxes in 2012 and 2013 championed by Brownback that have reduced the amount of available resources to comply with a court order on education funding.

Lawmakers could be forced to reconsider the income tax measures — pushed as a means to stimulate the economy and estimated to be worth nearly $3.9 billion over the next five years. Other Republican-run states have looked at such cuts, including this year in Oklahoma and Missouri.

"If we don't do something to make sure the revenue is there, then we're going to be in this continuing morass around school funding," said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the state's largest teachers union, which called on lawmakers to boost total funding immediately.

The court ordered legislators Friday to boost funding on two types of aid for poor school districts — supplementing property tax revenues for general operations and capital improvement projects — by July 1. But there's no deadline for the lower court to provide overall funding numbers.

Brownback told reporters he does not see any need to reconsider the tax cuts because the reductions are spurring economic growth.