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Kansas School Funding Falls Short of Legal Standard, Court Rules

A Kansas court has ruled that the state's current system for funding public schools does not meet the required legal standard.

In a decision released Dec. 30, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Judicial District Court in Shawnee County said that the system is "inadequate from any rational perspective."

It's the latest development in a long-running legal battle over state K-12 spending in Kansas, which is facing one of the more severe budget  crises in the country. (More on that later.)

In the ruling, the judges wrote that while they were not ordering the state to spend a specific per-pupil amount on education in order to comply with their decision, the state's funding system has deteriorated since 2009 to the point where it no longer complies with the Kansas Constitution. (General state aid for K-12 began to drop after 2009, and hasn't fully recovered after adjusting for inflation.) 

"We find that as the financing system now stands, one cannot classify the school financing structure as reliably constitutionally sound because the legislature has tied its constitutional duty to the unenforceable precept, yet parochial illusion, of local control and local funding choices as one linchpin for the assurance of constitutionally adequate funding," a portion of the court's ruling reads.

The judges also say that based on precedent, a basic per-pupil funding level of $4,654, combined with certain weights for certain groups of students, could be an appropriate figure. For fiscal 2015, the state's basic aid per pupil is $3,852.

The Shawnee court's declaratory judgment is unlikely to be the final word on the subject, with the state all but certain to appeal the decision to the Kansas Supreme Court. 

Background on Gannon

In 2010, 31 districts and four individuals brought a suit against the state saying that it had created an unconstitutional school funding system. In the case, Gannon v. Kansas, the districts said the state was not meeting the Kansas Constitution's requirement that the state make "suitable provision" for public schools. The plaintiffs claimed that the state had failed to abide by a previous deal reached regarding K-12 spending that came out of a 2006 ruling in a prior school funding lawsuit, Montoy v. Kansas. 

Among other remedies, the Gannon plaintiffs sought an annual school funding increase of $650 million from the state. 

Last March, the state Supreme Court ruled in Gannon v. Kansas that the state's K-12 funding system was unconstitutional because it treated relatively poor districts inequitably. In doing so, the justices upheld a previous ruling from the Shawnee court.

In response to the state Supreme Court's ruling on inequitable funding last March, lawmakers agreed to provide more state aid to poorer districts. The state Supreme Court subsequently ruled in June that the state had satisfied the court's ruling on equity in the funding system. 

However, the top court did not rule on the Gannon plaintiffs' claim that the system was also inadequate in terms of overall funding levels. Instead, it required the Shawnee court to further review questions regarding adequacy, and instructed the lower court to use the Rose v. Council for Better Education ruling from Kentucky as the legal standard. In that 1989 decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled the Bluegrass State's entire K-12 system to be unconstitutional and ordered legislators to overhaul state funding for public schools.

What's Next

It's uncertain when Kansas' highest court will rule on any appeal of the Shawnee court's latest ruling. Regardless, the state's legislative session is set to begin Jan. 12, and lawmakers have serious budget problems on their hands.

In November, the state announced a projected $278 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2015. Gov. Sam Brownback's attempts to shore up the budget largely didn't touch K-12, but whether lawmakers decide to significantly change school funding next year remains to be seen.

Read the Dec. 30 ruling from the Shawnee court below:

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