Court shoots down Kansas' latest answer to school-funding crisis

by Laura Edghill
Posted 6/30/15, 10:15 am

A district court panel in Kansas ruled Friday that critical components of the state’s new block-grant school funding law violate the state’s constitution. The block-grant law was an attempt by the Kansas legislature to reduce inequalities in school finances and stabilize funding streams to more predictable formulas.

The court stated the bill was unconstitutional “both in regard to its adequacy of funding and in its change of, and in its embedding of, inequities in the provision of capital outlay, state aid, and supplemental general state aid.” Attorney General Derek Schmidt swiftly filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court following the ruling.

Members of the Kansas legislature who supported the bill decried judicial activism.

“It appears Washington, D.C., isn’t the only place courts have decided to draft their own laws and ignore the will of the people,” Republican Senate President Susan Wagle said in a statement. “Topeka judges aren’t legislators, and it’s time they stopped auditioning for the role in their rulings. I’m hopeful our Supreme Court justices will show more restraint.”

Supporters of Friday’s ruling said the block grants diverted more funds to pension obligations and less to the classroom than the traditional per-pupil funding formula.

Those funding formulas vary by state, but most are a complex stew of local, state, and federal funds. The vast majority calculate funding based on pupil counts. The proportions vary, but state aid is the predominant funding stream in most cases, often weighted to offset inequities from local tax revenues.

As a result, schools must estimate their school-year budgets based on enrollment predictions rather than actual numbers. Pupil counts are typically taken in October, long past when local school districts need to adjust to accommodate enrollment shifts. The Kansas law was an attempt to provide schools with a more unrestricted, predictable stream of grants not tied to pupil counts.  

In March of this year, the Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling that compelled the legislature to produce a school funding law that addressed inequalities in the state’s procedures. The plaintiffs in that case, four public school districts, had experienced diminished funding since 2009, when the legislature reduced appropriations for several key components of state aid. The block-grant solution was the legislature’s answer to that ruling.

If Friday’s decision is upheld by the state Supreme Court, Kansas will be without any school funding law on the books, leaving the legislature tasked to provide an immediate solution.

“We don’t have any sort of school finance formula in place,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley told The Wichita Eagle. “When the block grants passed, the school finance formula was repealed, and so we have nothing in place that would appropriate money for school districts, the way I understand it.”

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, is a supporter of the block-grant law, and among those who criticized Friday’s ruling.

“The three-judge panel has once again violated its constitutional authority with this ruling. It has now taken upon itself the powers specifically and clearly assigned to the legislative and executive branches of government,” Brownback said.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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