Kansas court orders more state spending on schools

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Posted: Dec 30, 2014 5:46 PM
Kansas court orders more state spending on schools

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas isn't spending enough money on its public schools to provide a suitable education for every child, a state district court panel ruled Tuesday in an order that could mean the state has to boost its aid by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

An attempt by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature to comply with the order would complicate their efforts to close state budget shortfalls and preserve aggressive personal income tax cuts enacted at Brownback's urging to boost the economy.

The Shawnee County District Court panel declared in its ruling that the current funding is "inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence."

"Since the obligations here declared emanate from our Kansas Constitution, avoidance is not an option," the judges said.

The panel said the evidence suggests base state aid should increase to at least $4,654 per student — which would amount to about $548 million a year. However, the panel also suggested the figure could be much higher.

Kansas is facing predicted shortfalls totaling about $714 million in its current and next state budgets.

The state is expected to appeal the panel's decision to the Kansas Supreme Court. Attorney General Derek Schmidt said his office was evaluating all of its options.

Schmidt said he was "disappointed" by the ruling, and state Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and Brownback ally, said the judicial panel took "a very political and antagonistic posture."

Brownback said in a statement that he will work with legislative leaders "to determine the best path forward" and suggested rewriting the state's formula for distributing aid and pursuing other policy changes could get more money into classrooms.

Democratic legislative leaders said the ruling shows the problem isn't the funding formula but inadequate funding.

"Now it's time for him to ante up and finally restore dollars back to our classrooms," said state House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City Democrat.

Parents of more than 30 students and the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts sued the state in 2010 after recession-driven budget problems caused it to back away from promised increases in funding.

The state constitution says the Legislature must make "suitable provision" for financing public schools. The Kansas Supreme Court has declared that state spending must ensure all children get a suitable education.

Kansas spends $13,269 per student in its public schools, but that figure includes federal funds and local property tax dollars. The state's own base aid — a figure seen by educators as measuring state dollars for classroom and general administrative expenses — is $3,852 per student.

The base aid figure peaked at $4,433 in 2008, and is now 13 percent lower — even as the state increased the total dollars it put into schools to $3.4 billion annually, partly because teacher pension costs have risen.

Kansas once promised its base state aid would reach $4,492 per student, and the three-judge panel pegged its lowest figure for what's adequate to that number, adjusted for inflation since 2012.

The parents and school districts who sued had argued for an even higher base aid figure, but John Robb, a Newton attorney representing them, called Tuesday's ruling "a great decision for Kansas kids."

"It recognizes a continuation of a problem we've had for decades, of governors and Legislatures underfunding schools," Robb said.

The three-judge panel said it understands that the state faces "a self-imposed fiscal dilemma" and suggested negotiations among the parties.

Brownback successfully pushed lawmakers to cut the state's top personal income tax rate by 26 percent and exempt the owners of 191,000 businesses from income taxes altogether. Further cuts are promised.

Lawmakers boosted aid to poor school districts earlier this year by $129 million annually to eliminate gaps between them and their wealthier counterparts, but it didn't increase base state aid for all school districts.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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Online:

Text of the panel's decisions: http://bit.ly/1xewTKV