TOPEKA, Kan. - The state of Kansas' current funding of its public school system is unconstitutional, according to a ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court.
The state of Kansas failed to provide equity in public education as required by the state constitution, according to the Kansas Supreme Court in a unanimous decision released Friday.
In Friday's much-anticipated ruling, the court said Kansas' poor school districts were harmed when the state made the decision to cut certain payments when tax revenues declined during the Great Recession.
The court set a deadline of July 1, 2014, for the Legislature to provide equitable funding for public education. The court also sent the case back for more review to determine what the adequate amount of funding should be.
The court rejected the state's argument that the court had no authority to decide whether the Legislature had underfunded schools because it was a political issue and not a constitutional mandate. The court ruled the judiciary has the authority to rule on whether the Legislature has complied with its constitutional standards.
"The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore, or waive this duty," according to a news release.
A state Department of Education official estimates legislators must increase funding by $129 million, in addition to the more than $3 billion the state has budgeted for the 2014-2015 school year.
The case also has broader implications beyond the classroom: Kansas enacted sweeping cuts to income taxes in 2012 and 2013 championed by Gov. Sam Brownback that have reduced the amount of available resources to comply with a court order. Lawmakers could be forced to reconsider the tax measures, which Kansas and other Republican-run states have pushed as a means to stimulate their economies.
Kansas legislators had delayed any decisions on school funding until the high court made a final judgment.
The lawsuit was filed in 2010 on behalf of parents and school districts who argued the state had harmed students because spending cuts resulted in lower test scores. State attorneys maintained that legislators did their best to minimize cuts to education.
A three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court said in January 2013 that the lawsuit was valid, and the state appealed that ruling to the high court.
John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, saw Friday's ruling as a victory because the justices rejected the state's arguments that the issues in the case were political ones, to be determined by the Legislature and governor.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback released this statement shortly after the court's ruling.
“This is a complex decision that requires thoughtful review. I will have a briefing with the Attorney General and will hold a press conference later today. I will work with leadership in the Kansas Senate and House to determine a path forward that honors our tradition of providing a quality education to every child and that keeps our schools open, our teachers teaching and our students learning.”
The president of the Kansas Senate, Susan Wagle, R-30, told the New York Times before the court's opinion that her members would not adhere to a court ruling asking that funding be increased to a specific amount.
The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by attorneys representing four school districts and parents. They alleged that the state reneged on promises made in 2006 to provide a certain level of funding to Kansas public schools. Those promises were made in a settlement of a lawsuit filed against the state in 1999.
Attorneys for the state argued that legislators did the best they could to maintain education spending after a recession that began in 2008 reduced available revenues.
When it comes to finding more money for school equity in Kansas, Governor Brownback said he believes it is not necessary to eliminate recent state income text cuts. Governor Brownback explained that those tax cuts are generating income that will help schools
"We need to grow the stage, grow the revenues in the states. We need to grow the number of people working in this state and so far that's taking place," Brownback said.
Schools for Fair Funding was a party in the lawsuit against the state. Its leaders are worried the state is going to shift the financial burden to school districts.
"We believe if that happens, when the lower court goes back and uses this new and different standard, it will rule once again the Kansas Public Schools have been underfunded by the state," Joyce Eisenmenger Morrison said, communications director for Schools for Fair Funding
Kansas State Senator Jeff King represents southeast Kansas where there are several poor school districts. King is optimistic state lawmakers will find a solution.
"We think this opinion really gives us a chance to focus on equitable funding for the school finance formula, making sure kids in rural districts have the dollars they need to properly fund their classrooms," Senator King said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As she read this morning's decision, Christa Dubill broke out information from the court's filing and made notes from what she noticed that may help readers understand a few of the arguments. Those tweets and notes are embedded below.
Note: Some districts in KS have argued reduced state funding led to lower test scores pic.twitter.com/wtJB8qwEIh— Christa Dubill (@christadubill) March 7, 2014
Notes from KS Supreme Court today... Good to be aware of these numbers as discussions continue today. pic.twitter.com/1T1ciVocrr— Christa Dubill (@christadubill) March 7, 2014
Some BASICS of education funding to remember as KS Supreme Court ruling discussions continue pic.twitter.com/R8ugTfLZFy— Christa Dubill (@christadubill) March 7, 2014