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Kansas School Funding Declared Unconstitutional By State Supreme Court

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SAM BROWNBACK
Sam Brownback, governor of Kansas, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in 2012. Brownback said he would work with the Kansas legislature to "fix" state funding of public schools that the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday ruled the state's funding of public schools to be unconstitutional, a declaration likely to have effects beyond the state's borders.

The decision ordered the immediate reversal of recent education cuts, but told a lower court to reconsider the potential $1 billion question of whether Kansas provides enough education funding to adequately prepare students for the future.

The 110-page opinion's immediate effect on schools isn't clear. Much depends on the actions of Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who after the ruling promised to work with the legislature to "fix this." Earlier, conservative state lawmakers had threatened to defy the court, arguing that school funding is the business of the legislature, not courts.

"There's work to be done by our legislature," Diane Debacker, the state education commissioner, told The Huffington Post.

The opinion sets no legal precedent outside Kansas. But it provides clear language on school funding that may influence courts in New York, Texas and Connecticut that are considering similar cases that argue states are not funding schools adequately and equitably.

"These rulings aren't binding across states, but they borrow -- this case makes its claim for adequacy on a 1989 Kentucky case," said Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University professor. "One could certainly expect that other courts could adopt this."

The decision, like other recent education law rulings elsewhere, includes factors beyond money -- such as school quality, academic standards, and student outcomes. That trend may prove significant as schools adopt the Common Core State Standards.

"We will continue to see more and more state litigation on this issue of what it takes to ensure that all students can meet standards and placing a legal obligation on the state legislature to adopt financing systems that provide both adequate funding and equitable funding to ensure that those standards are actually achieved," said Dianne Piche, a former U.S. Education Department attorney who leads education initiatives at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The Kansas lawsuit, filed by four school districts and parents, alleged the state legislature failed to provide the amount of school funding it had promised. The state argued that school funding is a political issue over which the court lacks authority. The Supreme Court dismissed that defense.

The ruling "puts to rest any of the debates over justifiability," Baker said. "The constitutional language is enforceable and it is the court's job to do that."

The court ruled the state must immediately restore two matching funding streams -- known as capital outlays and the local options budget -- that had helped poorer school districts compensate for property tax bases significantly smaller than wealthy districts. The legislature had slashed the funds after the recession.

The court also ordered the state by July 1 to repay districts for past cuts - an amount likely to add up to $129.1 million, according to John Robb, a lawyer for the school districts that sued the state.

"It was clearly unconstitutional from the get go," Robb said. "Now the court's called them on it and they've got to put it back."

But the court pushed a broader question about the adequacy of the state's base school funding system to a lower court, ordering the lower court to assess adequacy under the so-called Rose standards, which stem from a 1980s lawsuit in Kentucky.

"We hold its [the state constitution's] adequacy component is met when the public education financing system provided by the legislature for grades K-12 through structure and implementation is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the standards set out in Rose," the Kansas justices wrote in the opinion.

The Rose standards are higher than the standards used in a 2006 Kansas school funding case. Courts in Alabama, Arkansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas have adopted the standards. In the words of the Kentucky Supreme Court, the standards aim "to provide each and every child with at least the seven following capacities," such as complex oral skills, sufficient political and economic knowledge "to make informed choices," "self-knowledge" related to mental and physical health; arts education; sufficient training "to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently," and sufficient training to enable them to compete for jobs.

Robb said he thinks his clients will eventually prevail on the adequacy claim.

"We're confident … they're going to find the system on the whole inadequate," Robb said. "That's the part that's $1 billion short."

But the process may take years. If the state complies with the equity order, school districts should see restoration of some state matching aid.

"When you wait three or four years on the determination on the bigger question, you've got that many more classes of kids who have graduated from inadequate schools," Baker said. "It's nice academically for me to look at this road map that the court has so wonderfully articulated, but it's not helpful to ensure that kids in Dodge or Kansas City, Kansas, are actually going to see, in their schooling time, adequate resources to achieve the new higher standards."

In a press conference Friday, Brownback said he was pleased with the outcome, and blamed previous administrations and legislatures for forcing the lawsuit.

“My commitment is to work with legislative leadership to address the allocation issue identified by the court," Brownback said. "We will fix this."

But the governor told reporters he doesn't think the tax structure needs to change in order to do that.

"We have adequate revenues coming in," said Brownback, who has cut taxes. "We don't need to change this tax structure."

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