By CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN
Last week the state lost again at the Kansas Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Kansas is underfunding its public schools, with repercussions for academically struggling children across the state — and especially for students and taxpayers who live in resource-poor school districts.
Because it’s just the latest in a string of similar decisions, the ruling means Kansas, in the eyes of its courts, has been unconstitutionally funding public schools for most of the past decade and a half.
Here are five key messages the justices had for the Legislature and the state of Kansas in the decision.
This spring Kansas lawmakers added nearly $300 million to spending on public schools, to be phased in over the next two years. Tucked into that was a combined $2 million for Blue Valley and De Soto school districts to serve more children from low-income families than those districts actually enroll.
So why did the two Johnson County districts get money for nonexistent students while other districts didn’t? The state argued that districts with a low percentage of children from low-income backgrounds still have their share of kids who are struggling academically. Hence, they should get a cushion of extra funding to serve those academically struggling kids.
That didn’t fly with the justices, who pointed out that districts across the state may face similar situations — there are nearly 40,000 Kansas public school students who are academically struggling yet don’t come from low-income families.
The implication: If Blue Valley and De Soto get extra money for kids in that category, other districts should too.
During recent repeated revisions to school finance laws, the Legislature allowed some districts to enlarge one part of their budgets that comes primarily from local taxpayers — without having to face protests from those taxpayers. Not all the districts fit the Legislature’s criteria for doing so, but among those that did, dozens jumped at the opportunity.
Then the Legislature closed this window and grandfathered in those districts.
That’s not fair, the justices concluded. It denies the rest of the state’s schools equal access to funding.
The Legislature has a history of tweaking its school finance legislation in ways that school boards argue shift the costs of education away from state coffers and onto local taxpayers. And the justices have repeatedly agreed with the school boards.
Why do they care? Because when the state does this, poorer school districts — meaning those in areas of Kansas where local property isn’t worth as much, so taxing it doesn’t raise as much — have a hard time keeping up.
This spring lawmakers suggested school districts could start paying their utilities and some of their insurance bills with a specific local property tax fund that is otherwise meant for things like building construction and computer purchases. A key feature of this fund is that the amount of money poorer and richer school districts have in it varies — a lot.
Take Kansas City Kansas and Blue Valley. Each district serves around 21,000 students, and each charges local taxpayers the same tax rate to fuel that construction fund. But because Blue Valley is property-rich, this raised $22.7 million. Kansas City Kansas ended up with just $9.2 million — even after the state kicked in money to account for the fact that the district’s property values are lower.
So the state Supreme Court slapped lawmakers on the wrist for changing the rules about utility and insurance bills.
This spring the Legislature decided to change how it calculates some of the money it gives to poorer districts. Instead of taking into account current data from local school budgets, it decided to start using data from a year earlier.
The state argued this offers budget stability and predictability. It makes it easier to see just what the state’s financial obligations will be.
That didn’t convince the court. The tweak cuts an estimated $16 million from the state’s aid to schools in 2017-18 — savings that come from reducing payments to districts with weaker tax bases.
One thing is clear in the history of school finance rulings: Kansas courts don’t like it when lawmakers rejigger the rules in a way that disproportionately cuts money from poorer schools.
The school districts that are suing Kansas accuse the state of cutting deep into school funding when the recession hit, failing to fix the situation and pursuing income tax cuts instead — all while schools reeled under the effects of increasing costs and inflation, and taxpayers and students paid the price.
In this context, the plaintiffs argued, adding $300 million isn’t enough, and ongoing inflation will eat up half of it anyway.
So how much money is needed? The justices didn’t say. What they really want is for the Legislature to put effort into figuring out what amount is needed and then show the court how it came up with it. And the court wants reasoning and calculations that make sense.
The court calls this “showing your work,” a phrase math teachers can no doubt appreciate.
Yet in the years-long saga of Gannon v. Kansas, the justices have repeatedly seemed unconvinced the Legislature is doing much more than coming up with a politically expedient figure and filing legal briefs that say, “There. We’re done.”
The problem, as the court sees it, is that a quarter of Kansas public school students are struggling with basic proficiency in math and reading. The state and Legislature have a duty to try to fix that by digging into the problem and passing reasonable legislation, the justices say.
So did Kansas show its work this time? Not according to the court.
The Legislature offered up a four-page statistical analysis of how much money schools need in order to be successful. The justices spent 14 pages complaining about its shoddy documentation, methodology and reasoning — effectively painting the memo as at best sloppy and at worst numerically manipulative. And, they noted, the Legislature didn’t end up actually following the results of the memo.
They contrasted what appeared to them to be a cursory job with two school finance studies the Legislature commissioned more than a decade ago. Each of those studies took analysts at least half a year to complete. One resulted in more than 340 pages of analysis and supporting documentation. The other had more than 160 pages.
The justices found similar weaknesses in the state’s other arguments — on topics ranging from funding for kindergarten to spending on academically struggling kids.
So in their eyes, the state didn’t make a convincing case for why it concluded that an extra $300 million was needed for schools and not, say, $200 million, $400 million or $800 million.
And that’s a problem, because the legal burden of proof was on the state.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.