School-Finance Roundup: Big Updates From Colo., Kan., Mass., and S.C.
There have been several interesting news developments in the arena of education finance this week, covering both court cases and state operating budgets. Let's get right to it:
South Carolina Court Rules in Favor of Poor Districts
In a lawsuit that stretches back over two decades, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled 3-2 on Nov. 12 that the state is not adequately funding schools in poorer areas of the state. The suit was originally brought against the state by several relatively poor districts in 1993. Much of the dispute in the lawsuit was based on who was responsible for defining the "minimally adequate" provision for K-12 required in the state constitution.
State lawmakers argued that it is ultimately up to them, not the courts, to define that term and fund schools accordingly, but the supreme court justices disagreed.
Rocky Mountain State Lawsuit Moves Ahead
Meanwhile, in Colorado, a state District Court in Denver has rejected an attempt by the state to have a school-finance lawsuit dismissed. This suit, which was also brought by several school districts along with parents of public schoolchildren, alleges that the state has violated the Colorado Constitution by failing to follow Amendment 23. This amendment to the constitution, which voters approved in 2000, requires the state to increase basic K-12 aid annually, pegged to the rate of inflation.
The defendants, who include Gov. John Hickenlooper and state Superintendent Robert Hammond, argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that a court finding would not substantively address the school-finance situation in the state. But the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and the case will proceed.
"We believe that the trial court found correctly that when the voters put something in the constitution, those words should mean something," said Kathleen Gebhardt, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Colorado Public Radio.
State funding for schools has been a hot topic in both the courts and at the ballot box in recent years in Colorado, where the recession greatly impacted K-12 spending. Amendment 66, which would have boosted K-12 funding by close to $1 billion annually, was rejected by voters in 2013, while the same year, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in Lobato v. Colorado that the state's system of funding public schools was constitutional.
Less Money, More Problems in Kansas
Kansas GOP Gov. Sam Brownback survived a tough re-election campaign on Nov. 4, but that won't solve the state's budget problems, and it has many in the K-12 community in Kansas very nervous.
The state's budget shortfall during fiscal 2015 now stands at $279 million, and $239 million of that is attributable to lower-than-expected income-tax collections, according to The New York Times. That means major budget cuts by the end of the fiscal year in June. And by the end of the fiscal year, the budget hole could grow as high as $546 million if tax receipts keep up at the current pace.
Education funding was a big issue in the campaign between Brownback and Democratic Kansas Rep. Paul Davis. Brownback defended his K-12 spending record from allegations that he's overseen a drop in per-student allocations. Although state general-fund spending on education went up for fiscal 2015, it's an issue that continues to rankle in many districts, and the most recent news could reignite fears of major education cuts midyear to offset the bad tax-revenue news.
Midyear Budget Worries in Massachusetts
Brownback isn't the only governor worrying about budget shortfalls. In Massachusetts, outgoing Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick is apparently trying to avoid cuts to education spending in the middle of fiscal 2015, despite a projected $325 million shortfall in state revenue.
Although Patrick, who's set to be replaced by Republican Gov.-elect Charlie Baker next year, said that he'll consider a variety of options to close the budget gap, he apparently doesn't want state K-12 aid to cities and districts to suffer. One factor behind the looming budget hole is a provision of the state's tax code that will likely lead the state's income tax to automatically drop from 5.2 percent to 5.15 percent.
There could be a renewed push to revise the state's landmark 1993 law that overhauled how state money&mdash and how much—was spent on K-12, but it could be blunted if the state's fiscal climate becomes gloomy.