Kansas Supreme Court Rules School Funding Formula ‘Inadequate’ Under State Constitution

Mar 2, 2017

As expected, the Kansas Supreme Court on Thursday morning ruled that the state’s school funding formula is inadequate under the Kansas Constitution.

In a unanimous 83-page decision, the court gave the Legislature until June 30 to address the state’s public education financing system.

The decision comes after the court ruled earlier that the school funding formula had failed to meet the equity prong of the Kansas Constitution.

The long-running case was brought by four school districts in 2010. They argued the state had inequitably and inadequately funded public education, in violation of the Kansas Constitution.

After a 16-day trial that produced a 21,000-page record, a three-judge panel upheld the districts’ challenge.

The Supreme Court later sent the case back to the panel after finding that it did not apply the correct standard in concluding the state violated the Constitution.

The panel, after applying that standard — set out in a Kentucky Supreme Court case that was codified by the Kansas Legislature — reached the same conclusion it had before. In its decision today, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the panel’s finding that the state’s block grant formula is constitutionally inadequate.

“In effect, it is merely a fund created by freezing school districts' funding for 2 school years at a prior year's level,” the court held. “It also is only minimally responsive to financially important changing conditions such as increased enrollment.”

The court found that the state not only is failing to provide about a quarter of all its public school K-12 students with basic math and reading skills, but is “also leaving behind significant groups of harder-to-educate students.”

It noted that 15,000 of the state’s African American students, or half of all African American public school students in Kansas, are not proficient in reading and math, “subjects at the heart of an adequate education.”

And it further noted that about 33,000 Hispanic students, or more than a third of that student population in Kansas, are not proficient in reading and math.

“Plaintiffs have also proven by substantial competent evidence that the student performance reflected in this data is related to funding levels,” the court wrote.

“Accordingly, we conclude the state's public education financing system, through its structure and implementation, is not reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the minimum constitutional standards of adequacy.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Gov. Sam Brownback said the state’s old school funding formula that pre-dated block grants had “failed” the students of Kansas. He said he would measure the success of a new formula not by the dollars spent but by student performance.

Brownback, a supporter of school choice, added that parents should have “the power they need to determine the best education for their child.”

“If they believe a quality education is not possible in their local public school, they should be given the opportunity and resources to set their child up for success through other educational choices,” the governor said.

Alan Rupe, an attorney who represented the school districts, said in a statement that the court "has finally confirmed what anyone who has recently stepped inside a Kansas public school already knew:  Kansas public education is significantly underfunded."

Kansas is facing a big budget problem. There's a $280 million budget gap to fill before July 1 and a deficit of hundreds of millions more next year. Still, Rupe says the ruling strong suggests lawmakers will have to find a lot more money. By some estimates, up to $900 million more. “The demands, the cost of educating kids has certainly changed with the demographics and with the kids coming to school not prepared to learn,” says Rupe.

However, should the Legislature come up with a fix that spreads that additional money over two or three years, Rupe says he'd certainly to open to that. But, Rupe says, he'll be in a "trust but verify" mood. “I’ll want to make sure that the Gannon case is not dismissed by the Supreme Court until the result is achieved.”

Overland Park Republican Stephanie Clayton also tweeted after the decision came down. 

David Smith, chief of staff for the Kansas City Kansas Public Schools, said in a phone interview that the state needs to create "sensible tax policy to undo tax changes that have, essentially, bankrupted the state."

“Certain kids cost more to education to adequate levels than other kids and funding ought to be tied to the needs of the students,” he said. 

“I think what people have come to understand is that any funding formula that is efficient and effective will look very much like the old one because it’s going to be tied to what it actually costs to educate students.”

The Supreme Court did not say what would constituted adequate funding. It said the Legislature could choose to enact minimal standards or exceed them. 

"Whether the legislature chooses to exceed these minimal standards is up to that deliberative body and ultimately the people of Kansas who elect those legislators," it wrote .

Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

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