Kansas Supreme Court Rules State’s Public School Funding Formula Is Unconstitutional

May 27, 2016

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt watches oral arguments in May before the state Supreme Court in the Gannon school funding lawsuit. The high court ruled late Friday that a major portion of the law is unconstitutional.
Credit AP Pool Photo

The Kansas Supreme Court has handed down its decision in the long-awaited Gannon school funding case, and it comes as no surprise to those who have followed its many twists and turns.   

“This case requires us to determine whether the State has met its burden to show that recent legislation brings the State's K-12 public school funding system into compliance with Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,” the court wrote in an opinion not attributable to any individual judge. “We hold it has not.”

The court gave the Legislature until June 30 to remedy deficiencies in its school funding formula. If lawmakers fail to satisfy the court, public schools in the state will have to shut their doors.

The opinion goes out of its way to put the onus on lawmakers should the public schools close. It would “not be because this court would have ordered them closed," the opinion states. "Rather, it would be because this court would have performed its sworn duty to the people of Kansas."  

In February, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling finding that the state’s block-grant funding law violated a provision of the Kansas Constitution. It then gave the Legislature an opportunity to craft a constitutional solution “and minimize the threat of disruptions in funding for education.”

Late in the legislative session, lawmakers passed a measure that, essentially, moved money from wealthy districts to poorer ones. A handful of smaller school districts would have received a little bit more money under the plan. The Legislature argued before the court three weeks ago that equity didn't necessarily mean more tax dollars were needed.

But the four plaintiff school districts, including Kansas City, Kansas, said that's exactly what had to happen. The high court clearly agreed.

The legislative cure, the court said in its 47-page ruling, "increases and exacerbates the disparity among districts." That was exactly what the school districts argued.

The Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) has said it might require up to $80 million to fix the equity issue.

The ruling did not sit well with conservative Republican Rep. Jerry Lunn from Overland Park. “This court has demonstrated that they’re trying to involve themselves in the appropriations process," he says. "I find it interesting that they’re not concerned about anything else other than education as far as making those judgements.”

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office managed the appeal, said the amount of money it might take to fix the problem is only one percent of the total the state spends on K-12 education. “I am distressed that the strain and uncertainty caused by this dispute persists even though more than 99 percent of the school funding system for next year has been approved and accepted by both the Court and the Legislature," Schmidt said in a statement.

Gov. Sam Brownback issued a more terse statement calling the decision "unfortunate" and that "The court is engaging in political brinksmanship with this ruling, and the cost will be borne by our students."

Lawyer Alan Rupe, who argued the case before the high court and has been suing Kansas over school funding since 1989, called it a "victory for kids." He also says the high court has showed a lot of patience with the Legislature over the years.  "A lot more patience than I showed with my kids when I told them what to do and they didn’t do it," he says. "At some point, the inability to act becomes willful defiance.”

Now, the legislature will have 30 days to satisfy the high court and allow school districts to keep operating after July 1.

Kansas City, Kansas Superintendent Cynthia Lane says she's confident the legislature will come up with a remedy and school districts can continue to operate.

She says summer classes will be over by June 30 but the district still has a summer meals program for kids plus construction and remodeling projects to keep on track.

But Lane says she's ready for if a shutdown happens. “We have a plan in case they don’t meet their timeline. I don’t ever want to implement that plan but we are prepared if that happens.”

The burden is now on lawmakers, who return to Topeka on Wednesday. 

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

Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.