Kansas high court: School funding unconstitutional - KCTV5

Kansas high court: School funding unconstitutional

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TOPEKA, KS (KCTV/AP) -

The Kansas Supreme Court said Friday 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 when tax revenues declined during the Great Recession.

At stake is an estimated $130 million in tax dollars.

"It's a great ruling for Kansas kids first and foremost," said John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "It means the Constitution actually does mean something."

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.

The case 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.

Brownback said he will discuss the ruling with Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

"This is a complex decision that requires thoughtful review," he said. "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."

In an afternoon news conference, Brownback and other Republican leaders said the ruling was reasonable. Brownback said he was pleased.

"It focuses on equity that a child in a poorer part of the state should have equal opportunity at an education as one from a richer part of the state," he said. "I agree completely."

Schmidt said the Legislature has multiple options for complying with the court's July 1 deadlines. Schmidt said he was pleased that the justices didn't impose a specific target for the state's overall spending.

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.

The Kansas City, KS, Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City school districts were the original plaintiffs.

Friday's decision has been in the works since the state appealed after a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court said in January 2013 that the lawsuit was valid. Because no issues involving the U.S. Constitution were raised, there's no appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justices heard oral arguments in October.

In the lawsuit, attorneys representing four school districts and parents alleged that Kansas reneged on promises made in 2006 to provide a certain level of funding the Kansas' public schools, namely that the failure to provide money for classroom instruction has harmed the state's education system -- including programs aimed at helping poor and minority students.

In recent years, school districts have trimmed their staffs, cut after-school programs and raised fees for parents. Classrooms became more crowded.

State attorneys had said legislators did the best they could to maintain education spending among the reduced available revenues during the recession, pointing to efforts to raise the state sales tax rate in 2010 and the reliance on federal stimulus funding to keep spending stable.

Legislators delayed any decisions on school funding until the high court made a final judgment.

An attorney for Kansas parents and school districts suing the state over education funding says the state Supreme Court's ruling in the case is a victory for children.

Newton attorney John Robb said Friday that he's pleased with the high court's ruling. The justices ordered the Legislature to boost two kinds of aid to school districts by July 1.

Robb said the guidelines the Supreme Court set for reviewing total funding are in line with what the parents and school districts had suggested during the lower-court trial.

"The state has an obligation to fund schools properly. It's not meeting that obligation and now we expect the Legislature is going to do its job and fund schools appropriately," said David Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City, KS, School District.

The largest teachers union in Kansas says legislators shouldn't wait on more court rulings to increase total state spending on public schools.

Kansas National Education Association President Karen Godfrey said Friday that lawmakers can end a lawsuit over school funding by boosting the state's aid to school districts this year.

Teachers' union officials were disappointed that more court hearings have been ordered and said lawmakers should move ahead anyway.

KCK district officials said they would use the additional money to reduce class sizes and hire more teachers. In 2010, the district eliminated 130 teaching position.

Parents and staff members in the KCK district said they would welcome additional money.

At Frank Rushton Elementary School, physical education and music classes are held in the lunch room.

"It's too crowded. You can't each. You can't focus. You can't learn," said Yolanda Wright who is both a mother and substitute teacher.

Mary Welsh, the school's long-time principal, said the staff tries to keep budget cuts away from the learning environment, but said it's hard.

"They try to protect our kids, teachers and programs but it becomes more challenging," she said.

Some districts worry about the impact of the ruling.

"How do you define adequacy," said Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Jim Hinson. "The decision of the Supreme Court does not generate revenue at all for the Shawnee Mission School District."

Click here to download the opinion.

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