Legislature has ‘substantially complied,’ Court states

In its most recent decision in the nearly decade-long school finance case, the Kansas Supreme Court has upheld the state’s school finance law.

The Court’s decision — issued Friday, June 14 — stated that, with its April 2019 approval of Senate Substitute for House Bill 16, the Kansas Legislature had “substantially complied” with its June 2018 order to add an inflation adjustment to the legislature’s multi-year funding plan, initially approved in April 2018. Despite its decision stating the finance law is in compliance, the Court said it will retain jurisdiction over the Gannon case to ensure the Legislature complies with that plan.

In the Court’s decision, the Court noted that the funding of public education is “extraordinarily complex” and that the justices had considered the “inexact nature of accounting for years of future inflation on millions of dollars” when assessing substantial compliance with the Court’s orders.

According to the Kansas Association of School Boards, the 2018 Legislature adopted a plan to increase foundational state aid per pupil over a five-year phase-in period designed to restore funding to the 2009 level, adjusted for inflation. In response, the Court found that method acceptable to provide constitutionally suitable funding but ruled that the Legislature needed to provide additional funding to cover the impact of inflation during the phase-in period.

The 2019 Legislature increased base state aid per pupil by approximately $90 million statewide for each of the next four years. The plaintiffs argued that this actually provided only $90 million in additional aid annually, and that by 2023, an additional $270 million would be required to meet the inflation target they said the Court suggested in its previous ruling.

The inflation adjustment approved by the Court was developed by the Kansas State Department of Education, proposed by the State Board of Education, recommended by Governor Laura Kelly and adopted by bi-partisan majorities of the both the House and Senate. It was supported by KASB and a broad range of other public education groups.

Opposition came from the plaintiffs and Schools for Fair Funding, who said it did not provide an adequate inflation adjustment, and legislators who said the future funding increases contained in the plan would create state deficits in future years, requiring either higher taxes or reductions in other state programs. Local representatives Senator Dennis Pyle and House Representative Randy Garber both were opposed to SB 16.

See the full decision attached to this story here.

Local Reactions

Prairie Hills USD No. 113 Superintendent Todd Evans said that he is appreciative that the legislature and Governor Kelly provided the resources for a school finance plan that is considered to be constitutional.

“Kansas school finance plans over the past decade have resulted in many rounds of reductions for schools. This has translated into a loss of services for children,” Evans said. “I am excited that we have a multi-year finance plan that will allow for strategic planning to offer the best education possible.

“I am also appreciative that the Kansas Supreme Court retained jurisdiction over this case,” Evans said. “This should help to maintain the integrity of the decision and future legislative action. I hope that this will help to end the courtroom drama that has surrounded many years of education finance in Kansas.”

Senator Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, says he is not pleased that the Court retained jurisdiction in the case.

“The Court’s decision to retain jurisdiction is a prime example of judicial activism, demonstrated by the fact the Court is trampling on the liberty of the people by dictating state law,” Pyle said. “Rather than dismissing the case, they have chosen to willfully grab power from the people and their elected representatives.”

“The Kansas Constitution says, ‘All political power is inherent in the people,’ and it is the people then who hold elected officials accountable, not unelected judges,” Pyle said. “It is a sad day when this abuse to our freedom goes unchecked. Would this have been the decision were these justices elected as they were prior to the retention system?”

State Reactions

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said that, after seven rounds of arguments at the Kansas Supreme Court and legislative responses to each prior decision, he is relieved by the Court’s decision.

“I am relieved this litigation has ended and should not recur as long as the Legislature and governor fulfill the promises they have made,” Schmidt said. “At the end of the phase-in period, Kansas taxpayers will be spending – and public schools will be receiving – roughly $1 billion more each year than when this began. With this lawsuit now behind us, it’s time for a thoughtful conversation about whether this process we have witnessed over the past decade is really how Kansans want school finance decisions to be made.”

The Kansas State Board of Education weighed in, stating that the Court’s decision is an acknowledgment of changing needs.

“Kansas’ academic standards are among the most rigorous in the country, and our students are working hard to achieve these standards. The board’s vision for education that Kansas leads the world in the success of each student recognizes that while academics are important, they are not the sole predictor of our students’ future success. Changing the culture of education is critical,” the State Board’s statement reads.

“We believe that focusing on early childhood education, social-emotional growth, career exploration and civic engagement all play an important role in preparing our students for high school graduation and postsecondary success.

“Kansas schools are redesigning the way they educate students by providing students with more choice in how they learn and at what pace they learn. Schools are focusing on ways to increase student, family and community engagement in the learning process; providing a safe and supportive space for students to grow socially and emotionally; and helping students identify what they like to do and what career opportunities align to those passions.

“The needs of today’s students and workforce have changed dramatically over the years and so too must our education system. Today’s Supreme Court decision is an acknowledgment of that change,” the State Board’s statement concludes.

History

Gannon v. Kansas was filed in 2010 after Democratic Governor Mark Parkinson ordered school funding cuts. By 2013, a three-judge trial court panel had said the funding system for Kansas schools was unconstitutional. In 2015, the Kansas Legislature enacted block grant funding for a period of two years to allow time to craft a new formula.

The Court has divided the complex case into two parts: adequacy — the overall amount of education funding — and equity, whether the Legislature has fairly divided money between property-wealthy and property-poor districts.

In 2016, the Court ruled that the block grant funding was not equitable, and in March of this year, the Court held that school funding in Kansas was not meeting requirements of adequacy and required the legislature to provide a fix by June 30.

In early June 2017, the Kansas Legislature passed a new school finance bill — SB 19 — which was modeled after the previous formula that had been in use for more than 20 years and had essentially in 2010 been struck down as unconstitutional. The bill provides a fixed amount of funding per student and then builds on that using weightings to factor in other costs such as transportation, at risk student population and low enrollment.

The Court ruled it would allow the state’s new funding law to go into effect while justices deliberated, enabling schools to prepare for the beginning of classes.

While SB 19 expanded education funding by approximately $293 million over the next two years, the Court held that this increase is substantially less than all other cost estimates, including estimates from the Kansas Legislative Research Department and the Kansas State Board of Education.

To help provide funding for the increases, the legislature approved and overrode Governor Sam Brownback’s veto of SB 30, a tax bill projected to raise state revenues by approximately $600 million per year. The tax bill raises income tax rates, repeals the small business (LLC) exemptions and eliminates the phasing out of the income tax.

In the Court’s fifth Gannon v. State decision — issued Oct. 1, 2017 — the Court held that the state’s new school finance law violates both the adequacy and equity requirements of the Kansas Constitution.

In its ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court basically told the legislature to “show your work” and prove that the level of funding is constitutionally adequate under the test requiring that funding be reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the constitutional standards.

Additionally, the Court held that four provisions of the new law created or exacerbated unconstitutional wealth-based inequities. Those provisions included those related to capital outlay expenditure allowances, supplemental general budget limits, supplemental general state aid calculations and at risk funding calculations. These provisions must be addressed, the Court states.

A new deadline was set by the Court — June 30, 2018 — though the court ordered that a new funding law be crafted before April 30 to allow time for review.

In its ruling, the court stated that “after that date we will not allow ourselves to be placed in the position of being complicit actors in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education owed to hundreds of thousands of Kansas school children.”

In early April 2018, the Kansas Legislature approved by narrow margins — 21-19 in the Senate and 63-56 in the House — Substitute for Senate Bill 423, a $525 million, five-year funding increase for public schools.

This bill added an estimated $200 million in state funding next school year and more than $100 million per year each of the next four years. This school finance bill was signed into law by Governor Jeff Colyer, and subsequently filed with the Kansas Supreme Court by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

Shortly after approval, a technical error was discovered that would have held back $80 million in intended funding to school districts. The Legislature corrected this error with House Substitute for SB 61 — deemed the school finance fix bill — with a 92-27 House vote and a 31-8 Senate vote. In early May 2018, the school finance fix bill was signed into law by Governor Colyer.

The Court released its sixth decision in the case on June 25, 2018. In this decision, the Supreme Court held that the State has not shown the school finance law enacted during legislative session this spring meets the adequacy requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution.

However, the court held that the new law does resolve the equity violations identified in the Court’s October 2017 decision. The court stayed issuance of its order until June 30, 2019, to allow the legislature ample time to bring the school finance system into compliance.

In early April of this year, the legislature approved and Governor Laura Kelly signed into law House Substitute for Senate Bill 16, which provided additional funding in response to the court’s finding of inflation problems.

In the decision released June 14, 2019, by the Kansas Supreme Court, the Court has issued a decision stating that the State has met the requirements of both adequacy and equity with its current school funding formula. The Court has, however, retained jurisdiction over the course to ensure the legislature complies with its plan.

Amber Deters116 Posts

Amber Deters is Co-Editor of The Sabetha Herald, where she has been on staff since 2005. She specializes in school board, election and legislative reporting, as well as photography and page and advertising design. Amber is a 2005 Kansas State University graduate with a degree in journalism and mass communications, print journalism sequence. She lives in Sabetha with her husband and three children.

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