Kansas Supreme Court Rules Block Grant School Funding Unconstitutional

Feb 11, 2016

In a ruling that has Kansas educators cheering, the state Supreme Court has upheld a district court panel ruling that block grant school funding is unconstitutional.

In a near unanimous ruling, the justices said the state is not meeting its equity burden under the state Constitution, which mandates that Kansas children have a right to an equal education whether they live in a poor or rich district.

The justices, as they have historically done, did not order the Legislature to spend a specific amount to fix the equity issue.

Rather, the Court says lawmakers have until the end of the fiscal year to come up with a remedy that passes high court muster. If not, schools will be shut down.

"In short, if by the close of fiscal year 2016, ending June 30, the State is unable to satisfactorily demonstrate to this court that the legislature has complied with the will of the people as expressed in Article 6 of their Constitution...no constitutionally valid school finance system exists through which funds for fiscal year 2017 can lawfully be raised, distributed or spent," the court ruling says.


While the Legislature now has time to fix the problem, time is short. The justices were clear in their ruling: If there is no acceptable remedy by June 30, "the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate".

“It is truly the Armageddon if they don’t make the funding requirements and provide equity as the courts have indicated they need to do,” says Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the plaintiff school districts, including Kansas City, Kansas.

Rupe made his comments on KCUR's Up to Date with Steve Kraske.

The three-judge Shawnee County court panel that ruled the block grant formula was unconstitutional suggested it might take another $50 million to fix the equity portion of school financing.

Whatever it takes to fix the problem, Rupe says the Legislature has known for a long time that the current system is flawed. He's not surprised the Supreme Court gave it one more chance to find a solution.

“I think the Kansas Supreme Court went out of their way to give substantial, as they call, deference to the Legislature," Rupe says. "To give them time to fix the unconstitutional situation.”

Rupe says he believes lawmakers will find a cure to the equity issue.

David Smith, chief of staff in the KCK district agrees.  “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to force the Legislature to confront some things they haven’t wanted to confront, but it is the right thing for this state, for communities, families, and kids," he says. "So, I have to believe, in the end, good will prevail and they will do the right thing.”

While lawmakers may do the right thing, it may come with some pain for moderates, according to Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Republican from Overland Park. "I'm worried the Legislature will be vindictive," she says. "We will comply, but with every piece of conservative legislation you can imagine attached."

However conservatives had a completely different take. "It's essentially a temper tantrum by the courts to push their political will on the Legislature," says Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Republican from Leawood. "It's one of those things where, give us the money or the kid gets it."

House Speaker Ray Merrick from Stilwell says it's unlikely lawmakers will simply spend more on schools. He says they will consider various ways to comply with the ruling.

It took most of the day but Gov. Sam Brownback responded on Twitter around 5:00 pm. "Kansas has among the best schools in the nation and an activist Kansas Supreme court is threatening to shut them down."

Still to be decided is whether Kansas is "adequately" funding education. Briefs have been filed in that portion of Gannon but oral arguments have not been scheduled. The three-judge panel suggested it may take $500 million to fix that part of the system.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.