Archive for Tuesday, January 4, 2005

State Supreme Court upholds education funding

January 4, 2005

By Scott Rothschild

Special to the Signal

Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Topeka -- Raising the possibility of a tax increase, the Kansas Supreme Court on Monday said the public school finance system was unconstitutional because the Legislature failed to fund it properly.

In a unanimous decision, the court gave lawmakers until April 12 to fix the problems and increase funding to schools.

Justices did not say what they would do if the Legislature failed, but some officials speculated the court could take over the school system.

"Clearly, the time to act is now," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said. The court opinion came one week before the start of the 2005 legislative session.

"Touchdown," said Alan Rupe of Wichita, the lead attorney for school districts that sued the state. "The Kansas Supreme Court is going to be sitting on top of the Legislature to make sure that schools are funded equitably and adequately."

Rupe said school funding probably would have to increase approximately $1 billion to satisfy the court, a figure that likely would require a tax increase. The current $2.7 billion in state aid to schools represents about half the state budget.

School funding advocates were pleased by the decision.

"For years the legislative leadership has explained their inaction on school finance by saying they have been waiting for direction from the court," said Kathy Cook, executive director of Kansas Families United for Public Education. "Now they have the direction they said they were waiting for, and it is time for them to act in accordance with that direction."

What taxes?

The Kansas Supreme Court says the $2.7 billion state school finance system is unconstitutional. In a ruling Monday, the court gave the Legislature until April 12 to fulfill a "constitutional duty" to improve public education. The ruling could mean more money for the Lawrence school district. Here, a group of second-graders from Schwegler and New York schools recite the Pledge of Allegiance before an after-school program.

But Republican leaders said the court's 10-page decision was open to interpretation and didn't necessarily mean lawmakers would need to raise taxes.

"Bottom line is we think this is a decision that we can live with and we will make every effort to comply with," House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said.

Will there need to be a tax increase?

"Don't know," he said. The court has "told us that we are not spending enough on education in this state, that we need to examine the formula to see what needs to be changed, and they are saying ultimately, however, it is up to the Legislature to decide this."

Conservative groups quickly sought to bolster the anti-tax position.

"Today's ruling is notable in that it very clearly does not mandate a tax hike on Kansas taxpayers and in that it requires the state to finally analyze how effectively our education dollars are spent," said Alan Cobb, director of the Kansas chapter of the Americans for Prosperity.

Discriminatory funding?

The long-running dispute focused on how Kansas distributes state aid to the more than 300 public school districts statewide.

Plaintiffs representing midsized, urban school districts filed a lawsuit in 1999 alleging their schools were at disadvantage because they had the largest proportions of high-need students -- low-income, minority and disabled students -- but received the least amount of school funding.

In December 2003, Shawnee County State District Court Judge Terry Bullock agreed, ruling the finance system violated state and federal constitutions and that the Legislature had shortchanged all students by about $1 billion. The state appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, which held oral arguments in the case in August.

Highest court acts

The seven-member court overturned parts of Bullock's decision, saying that the school finance system was not a violation of state and federal civil rights as Bullock had said.

But the court upheld Bullock's ruling that the Legislature had failed to meet its constitutional obligation "to make suitable provision for finance" of the public schools.

The court said it would stop proceedings in the case to give the Legislature "reasonable time" to correct the problems in the financing formula.

"To ensure the Legislature complies with our holding, we will withhold our formal opinion until corrective legislation has been enacted or April 12, 2005, whichever occurs first, and stay the issuance of our mandate in this case," the court said.

April 12 is the end of the major part of the legislative session. The 2005 legislative session begins Monday, which gives lawmakers 100 days to act.

Court provides hints

The court didn't specify how to correct inequities in the distribution of school funds, nor by how much to increase overall funding.

But the opinion was full of hints that were being dissected.

"We now have a road map," said Senate Majority Leader-elect Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.

The court said numerous societal changes had occurred among Kansas students since a previous school finance ruling in 1994. Those changes included an increase in the number of students from low-income families, students from families where English is not spoken and more rigorous admission standards to public universities.

The court also said there was ample evidence to show the Legislature was funding schools at a politically acceptable level, instead of at a level that reflected the true costs of education.

"It is clear increased funding will be required, however, increased funding may not in and of itself make the financing formula constitutionally suitable," the court said.

How much more?

Now the debate will be about how much more money should be spent, and how it should be distributed.

The court opinion referred to a 2001 consultant's study, called Augenblick & Myers, that was commissioned by the Legislature to determine what would be needed to fund a constitutionally "suitable" education. The report recommended a $1 billion increase in funding and was ignored by legislative leaders.

Mays and Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, also a Republican, continued to downplay the study, and said the court did not endorse it.

Mays said the Legislature should adopt legislation that defined what "suitable" funding under the Kansas Constitution included. Such proposals in the past have been sharply criticized by those who think they could restrict school funding while insulating the state from future school finance lawsuits.

Mays said he was appointing a special committee that would propose recommendations on changes to the school finance formula.

Democrats get involved

House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg appointed Democrats to the committee but noted that Democrats and moderate Republicans were out front last session in voting for tax increases for school funding -- measures that ultimately failed.

"Those who opposed any serious efforts to address this issue last session will now have to show us how they would meet the court's findings," McKinney said.

Sebelius, a Democrat, had recommended a $300 million tax increase for schools, while a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the House approved a $150 million increase that failed in the Senate.

Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said those kinds of proposals would have to be reconsidered this year in light of the court's ruling.

"If we're looking at those types of dollars, a tax increase has got to be on the table," Davis said.

Rep. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin, said the court decision "means some sort of major infusion of revenue."

He said the most important part of the opinion was that the Legislature must decide school funding on the actual cost of education instead of what is politically feasible.

"The Legislature has been asleep at the wheel. There needs to be some kind of costing mechanism put in place," he said.

Sen.-elect Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, and a member of the Senate Education Committee, said he was going to have to study the issue more before deciding whether a tax increase was in order.

He said the court's opinion provided "a whole lot of gray area that has to be filled."

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