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Kansas Supreme Court Rules Block-Grant Funding Formula Unconstitutional

Kansas' stopgap funding formula leaves its districts that serve the state's poorest students $54 million short annually and violates the state's constitution, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday. It is ordering that the state come up with a constitutional funding formula for the next fiscal year or risk not being able to open its schools for the 2016-17 school year. 

The state's legislature this week is in the thick of finalizing its budget for next year, and the ruling is likely to hamper that process. 

"Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30," the court said in its opinion which upheld a lower court's opinion. "The legislature's chosen path during the 2016 session will ultimately determine whether Kansas students will be treated fairly and the schoolhouse doors will be open to them in August for the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year,"

The court has yet to rule on the another part of the lawsuit, Gannon v. State of Kansas, dealing with adequacy of funding, which would require the legislature to increase its aid to education by $548 million, according to the Associated Press. 

"It is a real victory for kids that cost more to educate, who are minorities, limited-English kids, immigrant kids," Alan Rupert, the lawyer for the plaintiffs said to the Kansas City Star. "Those kids are going to see the equity dollars returning into the system when the legislature rolls up their sleeves and complies with the court's order."

The state's attorney general's office said it was looking into the ruling. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback had not yet responded to the ruling. 

The state's legislature, court, and districts have been sparring for years over the amount schools are provided and how that money is distributed. 

In 2010, the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City, and Witchita school districts sued the state alleging that its funding formula hurts poor and minority students the most and fails to distribute enough money to provide for an adequate education.

After the state supreme court ruled in 2014 that the state's funding formula was inequitable, the legislature added $140 million last year to its education budget and put in place the block-grant funding formula as a two-year stopgap measure until it could come up with a better funding formula.

But superintendents complained that the block grant froze most funding outside the state's teacher pension fund and fell $54 million short last year, forcing them to ultimately lay off staff and close schools early last year

The four districts sued again, this time alleging that the block-grant formula was also inadequate and inequitable, a battle which they won in a lower court.  The state appealed, leading to Thursday's ruling. The state supreme court is expected to rule on the adequacy part of the lawsuit later this year.  

The state slashed its personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013, leading to funding shortfalls.

Brownback has argued that the state's education funding continues to set annual records and provides stability for the state and districts, according to the Associated Press. 

Last month, a legislative committee report  said superintendents are spending $1 billion more than they did a decade ago in state money, and yet student performance has either stagnated or fallen. Going forward, the state government needs to more heavily scrutinize school district spending and consolidate services across the state, the report said. 

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