Court ruling raises possibility Kansas schools will not open
TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas faces a threat that its public schools won't open for the next school year after the state Supreme Court rejected some education funding changes made by the Republican-dominated Legislature.
The Legislature had revised parts of the state's school finance system but didn't change the overall aid for most of its 286 local districts. The court said Friday that the remaining flaws make the system unfair to poor districts, violating the state constitution.
Questions and answers about the court's decision:
Why were legislators making school funding changes?
The Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts sued the state over education funding in 2010. That's prompted a series of court rulings, including one from the Supreme Court in February to make the funding system fairer for poor districts.
The court in February set a deadline of June 30 for lawmakers to fix the problems, or face having schools remain closed afterward. GOP legislators pushed through their changes in March in hopes of averting the threat.
What was at issue in the rulings in February and Friday?
It's known as "equity," whether poor districts are getting their fair share of the state's aid to public schools, which now stands at more than $4 billion a year. The Supreme Court has said that the state constitution requires legislators to finance a suitable education for all children, whether they live in poor or rich neighborhoods.
What was under court scrutiny?
The court's February ruling focused on two pots of aid meant to help poor districts keep up with their wealthier cousins as they all impose local property taxes to supplement state dollars.
Wealth has been based on property values. With higher values, a district can raise more dollars with a lower levy than a district with lower property values. Each pot is distributed using a complex formula designed to see that the poorest districts are first in line.
One pot helps districts that levy local property taxes for "capital outlay," or building repairs and equipment. The second and much bigger pot helps districts as they levy local property taxes to supplement state aid for general operations.
What did legislators do in March?
They increased capital outlay aid by $23.5 million for the 2016-17 school year.
To pay for that, they applied the same formula for distributing capital outlay aid to the other, larger pot of aid. The change made the second pot cheaper by nearly $83 million a year.
But they also guaranteed that no district would lose any dollars.
The state saw no net increase in its overall spending.
Attorneys for the four school districts suing the state said lawmakers simply reshuffled existing funds.
Why would lawmakers do that?
They also had to balance the state budget and faced a projected gap of more than $290 million. The state has struggled to stay in the black since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes at GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's urging in 2012 and 2013 in an effort to stimulate the economy.
He hasn't backed off his signature cuts, and enough lawmakers haven't bucked him, so it always was unlikely they would find tens of millions of new dollars for schools.
Legislators also faced strong political pressure not to cut aid to wealthier districts to boost funding to poorer ones.
What did the court do Friday?
It said the Legislature's political considerations were irrelevant to its review.
It said the changes in capital outlay aid were OK, but it rejected the change in how the second, larger pot of aid is calculated. The court gave lawmakers until June 30 to fix the remaining problems.
Why would schools stay closed?
The court wouldn't separate the changes it accepted from the ones that it rejected, concluding that all of the changes were necessary parts of one package.
The justices said that without more changes, the entire system remains unconstitutional and "void," leaving the state without a valid one. Without a valid funding system, the court said, schools "will be unable to operate."
How do legislators plan to respond?
Republicans who control the Legislature don't know yet, though they harshly criticized the court's ruling. Lawmakers are scheduled to meet again Wednesday for a ceremony formally adjourning their annual session.