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Debate Begins on Kansas Court Ruling on School Finances

KS Supreme Court: Legislators made ‘unconstitutional’ school funding choices

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — In a long-awaited decision, the Kansas Supreme Court on Friday ruled that state lawmakers created “unconstitutional” and “unreasonable wealth-based disparities” by withholding certain state aid payments to public schools.

While the legal battle leading up to the decision has been a four-year slog since the lawsuit’s initial filing in 2010, much of Friday’s ruling boiled down to the court’s interpretation of what is considered equitable and adequate education funding.

While the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court decision regarding the state’s failure to equitably disburse capital outlay and supplemental general payments to Sunflower State schools, it stopped short of issuing a decree for specific funding to meet the Legislature’s constitutional requirement to provide an “adequate” education.

“Under the facts of this case, the district court panel did not apply the correct test to determine whether the State met its duty to provide adequacy in K-12 public education as required under Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,” the court decision stated, explaining that any decision about total funding levels would be bounced back to Shawnee County District Court for further consideration.

Supreme Court justices stated in the opinion that addressing concerns relating to equal state aid payments also could affect assessment of overall education funding.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a pro-free-market think tank, said the partial reversal of the lower court’s decision was huge.

“That’s a tremendous victory to say that ‘you can’t just say total spending is the measure,'” Trabert told Kansas Watchdog.

The Legislature was given an ultimatum to fix unequal capital outlay and supplemental general state aid payments by no later than July 1, or face court intervention. Following the ruling, plaintiffs told the Topeka Capital-Journal the state would need to appropriate $80 million to $150 million to comply with the judicial decision.

While it’s a far cry from the roughly $500 million a trio of Shawnee County District Court judges said the state needed to provide in January 2013, equalization payments are still a large chunk of change, and with the decision on overall funding still up in the air, it’s yet to be seen how the Legislature will respond.

“With no police force and no ability to sanction or punish lawmakers, the court would have no way to make the Legislature comply,” said Chapman Rackaway, political science professor at Fort Hays State University. “If the Legislature wants to ignore the court’s decision they are perfectly within their rights to do it. It would only be with a massive revolt by voters ousting lawmakers who participated in ignoring the decision that there would be any consequences to defying the court.”

Supreme Court justices, though, made one thing abundantly clear: They are not about to back down from this fight.

“Just as only the people of Kansas have the authority to change the standards in their constitution, the Supreme Court of Kansas has the final authority to determine adherence to the standards of the people’s constitution,” the ruling stated.

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org

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