Top Kansas court: State not properly funding poor schools

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday rejected some education funding changes enacted by the Legislature earlier this year and threatened to prevent the state’s public schools from reopening for the new academic year if lawmakers don’t act by June 30.

The court ruled on a new school finance law that revised parts of the state’s funding formula but resulted in no change in total funds for most of the state’s 286 school districts. It was the third school finance law approved in as many years as Republican lawmakers hoped to keep the court from following through on a threat it made in a February ruling to shut schools down.

Kansas schools have either finished or are winding up the current academic year. The state’s inability to distribute more than $4 billion in aid to them would keep them from opening again in August, and summer programs would be canceled. It was not clear how long districts could operate on cash reserves, which vary across the state.

The justices ruled that lawmakers failed to fulfill the court’s order in February that funding to poor school districts be improved.

Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick called the decision “disgraceful” and accused the justices of “holding children hostage.” Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said the court is engaging in “political brinkmanship.”

“The court has yet again demonstrated it is the most political body in the state of Kansas,” Merrick, a conservative Republican, said in an emailed statement.

Lawmakers this year faced a budget crunch that followed massive personal income tax cuts and were hamstrung by strong political opposition to redistributing funds from wealthy school districts. But the court declared in its unsigned opinion that “political necessities” were irrelevant to its review.

The justices also said that legislators’ failure to fully comply with its earlier ruling — and not action by the court — would be to blame if schools remain closed. The court refused to sever education funding changes it found objectionable from others it accepted, rendering the entire school funding system invalid under the state constitution.

“Simply put, the Legislature’s unconstitutional enactment is void; it has not performed its duty,” the court said.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the state slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy — an experiment watched nationally. Brownback hasn’t backed off his signature tax cuts, and enough lawmakers haven’t bucked him.

The state’s lawyers argued that legislators made a good-faith effort to address the court’s concerns and the justices had no reason to shut down schools. But lawyers for four school districts suing the state argued that legislators only reshuffled existing funds.

One of the districts’ attorneys, Alan Rupe , said it would cost the state between $17.5 million and $29.5 million during the 2016-17 school year to comply with the court’s latest order, depending on whether lawmakers want to prevent any districts from losing aid as they boost funding for poor ones.

“The Legislature needs to get together and fix it,” Rupe said.

Legislators aren’t scheduled to meet again this year except for a brief adjournment ceremony Wednesday, and it wasn’t immediately clear what the conservative Republicans who lead both chambers planned to do. Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley called for lawmakers to approve additional spending Wednesday.

The court’s past rulings have made Republicans increasingly hostile and suspicious of the justices. Six of the seven were appointed by Democratic or moderate GOP governors and only one by Brownback, a conservative.

Four of the six justices appointed by previous governors are on the ballot in November to determine whether they stay on the bench. So is Brownback’s appointee, though he did not participate in the case.

Merrick said voters should consider ousting justices.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts and followed up on one in 1999 that forced lawmakers to promise big increases in annual spending on public schools. Legislators kept their promises at first but backed off during the Great Recession.

The court has repeatedly said the Kansas Constitution requires lawmakers to finance a suitable education for every child.


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