Could A Johnson County Provision Sink The Whole Kansas School Funding Formula?

Jul 19, 2017

If you weren’t paying really close attention to the oral arguments in the Gannon v. Kansas school funding case before the Kansas Supreme Court on Tuesday, you probably missed a little question from Justice Dan Biles about a provision of the new school funding formula that exclusively benefits two Johnson County districts.

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Dan Biles prodded the state's lawyer Tuesday about $2 million set aside in the school funding formula for two Johnson County districts, though they have few low-income students.
Credit Orlin Wagner / Associated Press

“Does the state really want us to strike the entire formula because $2 million went askew in the process?” Justice Biles asked.

There’s a provision in the formula that funnels extra money to the Blue Valley and De Soto districts as though they serve more students from low-income households than they actually do -- $2 million of the $23 million intended to bolster programs for academically struggling children statewide.

Lawmakers boosted the funding for at-risk kids because, when the justices declared the previous school funding formula inadequate in March, they’d pointed to the disproportionate numbers of minority and low-income children who are behind in math and reading. 

To qualify for the extra money, the new formula requires 10 percent of children in a district to be categorized as at-risk. Blue Valley and De Soto don’t meet that threshold. So, the bill’s sponsors said, to make the legislation equitable for all districts, they allocated $2 million to those two districts anyway.

In crafting the bill, lawmakers decided that if this piece of the school funding formula is declared unconstitutional, the whole formula will go down with it.

Kansas Solicitor General Stephen McAllister told the court, momentarily stumped by Biles’ question about the provision: “I don’t think anyone, including the schools, wants to strike down the entire law and stop all funding of the schools.”

“So the state would very much like to avoid that outcome,” McAllister said.

Some Democrats suggested the provision had simply been a way to buy support for the school funding bill from the Johnson County delegation.

Not so, says Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway. “It is an attempt to provide one more avenue of funding to put directly towards activities that will help those students.”

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, from Overland Park, says, “No doubt it was a Johnson County provision.”

But he also says it’s money the districts need to provide services to their students, so he’s happy with the provision.

“Now if that’s something they (the Supreme Court) want to reverse, we have to live with it,” Denning said.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.

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