Kansas Supreme Court rules school funding levels unconstitutional

School funding had been cut during recession, but with additional tax cuts Kansas may not be able to reinstate funding

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback listens to kindergarten students during a class on Jan. 23 at Roesland Elementary School in Roeland Park, Ks.
John Milburn/AP

The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday said the state's current public school funding levels are unconstitutional.

In the much-anticipated ruling, the court said Kansas' poor school districts were harmed when the state made the decision to cut certain payments after tax revenues declined during the world financial crisis in 2008.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to district court for more review to "promptly" determine what the adequate amount of funding should be, but didn't set a deadline for a hearing. It did, however, set a July 1 deadline for legislators to restore money for two funds aimed at helping poorer districts with capital improvements and general school operations.

A state Department of Education official estimates legislators now 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, which means the state might not have enough money to comply with the court order. Lawmakers could be forced to reconsider the tax cuts that Kansas and other Republican-run states have pushed as a means to stimulate their economies.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 on behalf of parents and school districts who argued that the reduced funding was worsening the quality of education and leading to 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.

He predicted that after the next round of lower-court hearings, the outcome would mirror what happened previously: An order for the state to increase its total annual spending on schools by at least $440 million.

"I see that we have to go around the block again," he said.

"This is a complex decision that requires thoughtful review," Brownback said in a statement. "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."

Because no issues involving the U.S. Constitution were raised, there's no appeal expected to the U.S. Supreme Court.

All states have language in their constitutions for providing public school funding. But Kansas' courts in the past have been strong and specific in spelling out how the state must carry out that responsibility.

Brownback's personal income tax cuts will leave nearly $3.9 billion out of the state government's budget over the next five years. He has claimed that Kansas is leading a low-tax, small-government "American renaissance."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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