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School Shutdown Looms as Kansas High Court Strikes Down New Funding Plan

For the second time this year, Kansas' Supreme Court struck down the state legislature's funding formula on the grounds that it does not distribute equitably more than $4 billion in state aid among its school districts.  

This time, the stakes are much higher. The legislature, which ended its session earlier this month, will have until June 30 to figure out a new funding formula or the state supreme court will deem the entire formula null and essentially shut the state's public school system down. 

A ruling on whether the state's funding formula is adequate is expected to come down later this summer. If the state loses that case, the legislature will be forced to find close to $400 million more for Kansas school districts.  

After the supreme court ruled in the Gannon v. Kansas case in February that the state's funding formula was inequitable between wealthy and poor school districts, the legislature, late in its session, quickly (Democrats said illegally) pushed through a bill known as the Classroom Learning Assuring Student Success Act. The law would have poured $2 million more into the state's funding formula and done it in a way so that the state's wealthy (and politically powerful) school districts wouldn't financially suffer.  

Randy Watson, the state's superintendent said last month that because the legislature doesn't have that much money to work with and that raising taxes wouldn't generate revenue by this July, there was a strong possibility that the court would accept the ruling.  

But Alan Rupe, one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiff Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita school districts, told the court in a hearing earlier in May that the legislature essentially just rearranged its funding formula and left local (and mostly poor) taxpayers footing the bill. He used a set of Legos in court to demonstrate his rearrangement argument.  

In its 47-page ruling issued May 27, the court essentially agreed with Rupe, describing the state's current funding formula as still inequitable and disproportionately burdensome on local taxpayers.  

The justices said "political necessities" were irrelevant to their review and that if schools were to close, legislators, not the court, would be to blame. 

"Simply put, the legislature's unconstitutional enactment is void; it has not performed its duty," said the ruling, signed by all seven justices. 

Rupe predicts satisfying the court will cost the state $17.5 million, or $29.5 million if the legislature doesn't want to force the state's wealthier districts from losing money, according to the Associated Press. In the coming weeks, the legislature will have to reconvene, devise a new funding formula, get the governor to sign it and send it to the courts.  

In reacting to the ruling, the state's governor and lawmakers didn't parse their words.   

"The court has yet again demonstrated it is the most political body in the state of Kansas," said Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in an e-mailed statement to the AP. He referred to the ruling as "political brinksmanship." 

Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick said, according to the AP,  the court was "holding children hostage." 

But for administrators of the state's poorest school districts, who have frozen teacher wages, cut extracurricular programs and, as a last resort, dramatically increased local property taxes, the court's ruling was a relief, and they amped up the pressure for the legislature to increase funding.  

"All sides in this dispute, including school boards and administrators across the state, want to avoid any disruption to public education in Kansas," the Kansas Association of School Boards said in a statement. "Shutting down the school system on July 1 would have disastrous effects on our fine public schools and state. In its ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court said the Legislature has solved half the problem, declaring that capital outlay is constitutional. We strongly urge our elected leaders to continue working on providing a constitutional system for all of our students and resolve this issue as soon as possible." 

The case, brought against the state by four poor districts in 2010, has roiled the Republican-dominated legislature for years, and has become one of the starkest examples in the country of how much power state supreme courts have in shaping school finance.  

The court first ruled in 2014 that the state's funding formula was in equitable. After the governor and legislature made another round of cuts to its school districts, the court ruled again earlier this year that the funding formula was still inequitable, predicting that it left school districts more than $54 million short in annual funding. In that ruling, the court first said it would shut down the state's school districts if the legislature didn't come up with a satisfactory formula by June 30. 

The legislature has had to make dramatic cuts in recent years after lawmakers in 2012 made a series of income tax reductions to spur the economy, an outcome that has not yet come to fruition.  

In response to the school funding ruling and several other rulings, the state's legislators have in recent months campaigned to have the state's appointed justices be removed from office this fall. (Voters can remove appointed judges in what's known as retention votes.) 

In this week's Education Week issue, I wrote about how state supreme court rulings around education funding formulas often hinge on the specificities—and ambiguities—of state constitutions. 


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