KS Supreme Court rules state has not funded schools equitably, gives legislators deadline

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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) -- The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled the state's new block grant funding law does not meet requirements for funding schools equitably.

Supreme Court justices say in the ruling that the Kansas Legislature should get another opportunity to create a constitutional funding system. If no constitutional system is in place by June 30, there will be no lawful system to distribute money to K-12 public schools.

In the decision released Thursday morning, the Court found that the Shawnee County District Court panel, which ruled in June 2015 that K-12 public schools were not funded equitably, properly applied the equity test adopted in the case, Gannon v. State.

The high court ruling Thursday confirms the lower court's ruling that the State has not carried its burden to show it has cured the supplemental general state aid's unconstitutional inequities.

The Supreme Court had said it would schedule arguments on whether school funding is adequate for spring 2016.

In Thursday's ruling - the Court said it's putting that portion of the appeal on hold waiting to see how lawmakers respond to the ruling on the equity question.

Reaction to decision

Gov. Sam Brownback issued the following response after the decision was announced:

“Kansas has among the best schools in the nation and an activist Kansas Supreme court is threatening to shut them down.

“We will review this decision closely and work with the Legislature to ensure the continued success of our great Kansas schools.”

Senate President Susan Wagle (R) said:

“The Supreme Court’s threat to close our schools is nothing more than a political bullying tactic and is an assault on Kansas families, taxpayers and elected appropriators. The decision today makes a pawn of Kansas schools as the courts attempt to advance their agenda. We will not play their game but will instead do our best to provide a quality education for all Kansas students.”

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley said:

"I don’t know what Sam Brownback and his legislative allies expected when they eliminated the school finance formula thereby eliminating all equity components -- proving they are out of step with Kansans who value good, quality public schools."

“Years of reckless fiscal policies have taken a toll on public education. It’s time for the Governor and Republican legislators to stop playing games with our children’s future and restore the cuts they made to our schools.”

House Speaker Ray Merrick on Thursday issued the following statement after the Kansas Supreme Court released its latest ruling in the Gannon school finance decision:

“Today the Kansas Supreme Court showed itself to be the most politically motivated of all branches of government, despite its self-declarations of judicial detachment. The opinion came two days after the judicial budget fix became law. It was posted on Thursday, not the traditional Friday. It was issued within hours of a final action vote on the House budget, and a week after the House voted to change the way Supreme Court justices are selected.

Memories on the bench must be failing, because the opinion came just two months after the court reaffirmed separation of powers doctrine in its ruling to retain its own power regarding the selection of chief district judges. Today that was forgotten.

The court has once again demonstrated no misgivings on interjecting itself in legislative proceedings and holding Kansas taxpayers and Kansas school children hostage. Kansans deserve better, and that is the consideration we will make going forward.”

Rep. Tom Burroughs, House Democratic Leader, D-Kansas City, also weighed in, releasing the following statement:

"Gov. Brownback and his conservative allies in the legislature mismanaged our state, jeopardizing our children’s future. But rather than take responsibility for our state’s stagnant economy and self-inflicted budget crisis, Republicans choose to blame public education.

“In contrast, Democrats value schools, teachers, and our children’s futures. We know our schools are the bedrock of our communities and are crucial to rebuilding the Kansas economy. We stand ready to invest in public education to ensure every child has a chance to succeed."

Alan L. Rupe, the attorney whoe represented Gannon against the State of Kansas provided the following to 13 NEWS:

The Supreme Court pointed out in their opinion: “The constitution is the direct mandate of the people themselves. The statute is an expression of the will of the legislature. Which shall this court obey?” Obviously, the Kansas Supreme Court had no choice but to “obey the will of the people as expressed in their constitution.” Hopefully, this opinion will encourage the legislature to uphold the will of the people and comply with the requirements of the Kansas Constitution.

The SCOK confirmed that Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution requires the legislature to "provide enough funds to ensure public school students receive a constitutionally adequate education and that the funds' distribution does not result in unreasonable wealth-based disparities among districts."

A little history:

The law, which was passed at the end of the last legislative session, scrapped an older per-pupil distribution formula in favor of predictable grants to the state's 286 school districts based on the funds they received before the law changed.

It was challenged by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts. They argued that it distributed state funds in ways that harmed programs for poor and minority students.

A Shawnee County District Court panel ruled against the state last June, saying it did not fund K thru 12 public schools adequately or equitably.

The state appealed, and the Kansas Supreme Court elected to divide its consideration of the case into separate arguments on the adequacy and equity questions.

The High Court has said it will hear oral arguments on the adequacy question this spring, but has not yet set a date.

The lower court ruling came just hours after lawmakers adjourned their 2015 session. Brownback signed the block grant measure into law in March.

It moved funding for K thru 12 public schools to a block grant method for the next two years, while lawmakers re-wrote the prior school funding law.

The District Court's 87-page decision cites several issues with the block grant funding bill.

Among them, they raise concerns that lawmakers use retroactive reductions in capital outlay and local option budget equalization aid to determine the amount of money districts will receive in the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years.

The court said the method does not hold districts harmless as the state said it would, but rather carries losses into the next two years and increases disparities between wealthy and poorer districts.

"If the history of the enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education has taught us anything, it is that a judgment fundamentally grounded on principles of equality of opportunity cannot be satisfied by merely a proffer of a lesser degree of the same inequality," the court's decision reads. "A disparity in educational opportunity should not be allowed to arise from the difference in property tax wealth between school districts."

However, rather than immediately throw it out, the court issued several temporary injunctions, including basing block grant amounts on the current year's enrollment, rather than this past school year. It also says the state must immediately pay schools capital outlay and LOB money cut through fiscal year 2015 allotments.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt wasted no time filing a notice to appeal a Shawnee County District Court panel's ruling. He made his intentions known to the Kansas Supreme Court late Friday, hours after the lower court decision was released.

In a statement, Brownback said the panel overreached its authority with the ruling.

"(The court) has now taken upon itself the powers specifically and clearly assigned to the legislative and executive branches of government. In doing so, it has replaced the judgment of Kansas voters with the judgment of unelected activist judges," Brownback said. “For the first time ever, the state will invest more than $4 billion in K-12 education in Kansas in Fiscal Year 2016.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, agreed, comparing the District Court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings this week on the federal health care law and same-sex marriage.

“It appears Washington, D.C. isn’t the only place courts have decided to draft their own laws and ignore the will of the people," she said. "Topeka judges aren’t legislators, and it’s time they stopped auditioning for the role in their rulings."

Shortly after the decision was announced, House Minority Leader Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, released a statement calling on lawmakers to "return to the pre-existing school finance formula."

That formula "has been tested in court and found to be constitutionally sound," he continued. "All that remains is for the legislature to adequately and equally fund education."

The Kansas Association of School Boards says it "supports immediate compliance with the court order... and urges the development of a school finance system that provides adequate, equitable funding to support all students.

The prior law was already the subject of a lawsuit. The district court panel ruled in December that the state is not adequately funding schools. The state asked them to reconsider, but also appealed to the high court. The Kansas Supreme Court in March sent the case back to the district court panel to resolve pending motions.

The school districts that sued filed their own request to block lawmakers from tampering with additional aid to poor districts approved last year. The funding came in the wake of the courts' initial ruling that schools were not funded equitably.

In its decision, the district court panel references that prior ruling, saying that, by freezing the funding amounts the panel already deemed inadequate the new measure "also stands, unquestionably, and unequivocally, as constitutionally inadequate in its funding."

In his statement following the ruling, Brownback pointed out that, for the first time ever, Kansas funding for K-thru-12 public schools will top $4 billion in fiscal year 2016. However, the district court's ruling notes the funding increases come from including the amount of money put into retirement funds for teachers, not money allocated to school district operations.

"KPERS contribution funds have...never been considered by experts or other competent professionals in evaluating the adequacy of K-12 school funding," the court wrote.