Kansas’ highest court ruled Friday that funding disparities between school districts violated the state Constitution and ordered the Legislature to spend more than $125 million to bridge the gap, setting the stage for a messy budget battle in the Kansas State Capitol this year.
With its ruling, the state Supreme Court averted, for now, a larger constitutional showdown by ordering a lower court to reconsider the most controversial part of the case: whether the public-school system statewide was adequately funded.
The lower court originally ordered an increase of more than $400 million in school funding, and the conservative-led majority in the Legislature had vowed to defy that order if it were upheld. Legislators said it was the job of lawmakers, not judges, to appropriate money.
Still, the unanimous court decision Friday would seem to leave some Republican lawmakers in Kansas unsettled because it orders them, by July 1, to appropriate tens of millions of dollars to poorer districts to make the school system more equitable. The Legislature had been withholding those constitutionally mandated payments in recent years.
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“I think the bottom line is that you still have a constitutional issue here as to which branch has the power of the purse,” said state Rep. Kasha Kelley, a Republican who is chairwoman of the House Education Committee. “And clearly that duty lies with the legislative branch.”
The court rejected the contention that it lacked the authority to make decisions on school funding, saying that it has the duty to determine whether legislative acts comply with the Constitution.
“The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore, or waive this duty,” the decision said.
Most of the attention in the case had been focused on the trial court’s order to raise base aid per student to $4,492, a 17 percent increase over the current level, to provide an adequate education for all Kansas students.
On Friday, the state Supreme Court held that the district court had not applied the proper standard to determine what constituted an adequate funding level and asked the lower court to re-examine that issue.
John Robb, the lawyer for the school districts that sued the state, said he was confident that the district court would reach the same result.
“It’s a great ruling for Kansas kids,” he said. “It should advance education in Kansas and get us back on the right track. It takes a willing Legislature to comply with this order. I am confident they will follow their constitutional oaths and do what’s right for kids.”
The issue of increasing base aid per student was politically charged because at the same time that lawmakers, led by Gov. Sam Brownback, refused to increase funding, they passed the largest tax cuts in state history.
In 2005, the court approved an agreement to gradually raise per-pupil spending, but the goals were never reached because of the nationwide recession and, more recently, the tax cuts.
In January, with the justices sitting nearby, Brownback fired a warning shot during his State of the State address, saying: “The constitution empowers the Legislature, the people’s representatives, to fund our schools,” and the state should ensure that “our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the court’s ruling affirmed that Brownback and the conservative-controlled Legislature created an unconstitutional school finance system. “It is time,” he said, “to fix it.”
The group of parents and school districts that brought the lawsuit that was ruled on Friday argued that the state reneged on the 2005 agreement.