About this story
A new school finance law, injecting more funding into schools and creating a new funding formula in response to supreme court rulings the past two years, was passed this week. It is unclear if the court will bless the law or send the Legislature back to the drawing board.
Why it is important
If the new law is struck down, or the court does not rule by June 30, school districts could be forced to close without a funding formula in place. It is unclear if schools could spend reserve funds to stay open, that is direction needed from the court. Closure would not only delay the opening of schools this fall and change the lives of every student and their parents in the state, but also mean no paychecks for school employees — from janitors to superintendents.
Time is of the essence, and a serious deadline is looming for schools.
This week, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed Senate Bill 19 into a law, a new school funding formula with an influx of funding. That new law requires a Supreme fourt review, the result of a 2010 lawsuit. For schools, that court review can not come quick enough.
“Our current formula dies June 30,” said Deb Hamm, superintendent of Newton USD 373. “We either need an assurance from the court that we can be operational, or what we can do to not be in violation of any laws of funding.”
At issue is if the state will have a constitutional way to fund schools — and if it does not, what schools will be able to do. One very real scenario, Hamm said, is a complete shutdown of school systems.
Even in the summer months that is scary. No maintenance. No building repair or improvement. Nothing to get ready for the start of school, right up to not receiving food shipments for lunch programs.
“If we have a shutdown, depending on how long it is, we will be faced with the possibility of a delay of the start of the school year,” Hamm said.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt agrees, pointing out in a court filing Friday that court had given the Legislature only until June 30 to bring the Kansas school-funding system into compliance with the state Constitution. Schmidt asked the Court to complete its review of the new legislation before then, or to extend that deadline. If the deadline passes without an approved school-funding system in place, the existing law authorizing money for schools will be invalidated, effectively shutting off funding for the state’s public school system and closing schools.
In a Notice of Legislative Cure filed with the Supreme Court, Schmidt said the new legislation “complies with this Court’s Opinion … and is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed” the requirements established by the court.
The new law would phase in a $293 million increase in aid to the state's 286 school districts over two years. The measure also would establish a new finance formula to fund all-day kindergarten classes and increase money for programs designed to help low-performing students.
The Kansas Supreme Court notified lawyers in the case to appear by phone for a scheduling conference at 8:30 a.m. Monday to discuss deadlines and identify at least the major issues arising out of the signing of Senate Bill 19, the school finance bill. The court will issue a scheduling order later Monday.
John Robb of Newton, an attorney for four school districts that successfully sued the state, said they will object to the new law because they believe it falls hundreds of millions of dollars short of what adequately funding schools.
The Supreme Court did not set a specific figure for how much funding must increase, but the districts' attorneys have pointed to a proposal from the State Board of Education to phase in a nearly $900 million increase over two years as evidence of what's needed.
Robb said the state has the burden of showing that the new law fixes the problems cited by the court in its March decision and, "We don't think the state can meet the burden."
"They've designed a new car, but we don't think they put enough gas in it," Robb said.
It is unclear what happens if the new law is found unconstitutional by the court.
“We need an assurance that we can spend money we have,” Hamm said. “We need to know what we can do and can not do. Hopefully they can give us that.”
The last time schools came this close to a shutdown, Hamm said, was 2005. That year the Legislature had a formula that was deemed constitutional, but the court ruled the level of funding inadequate. The Legislature called a special session to avert shutting down schools by injecting more money into the formula.
“We really do not know what it means to not have a funding formula,” Hamm said.
The new funding formula resembles an old per-student formula that GOP lawmakers junked in 2015 in favor of predictable "block grants" for districts. The block grant system carried with it a sunset — the Legislature passed the grants to give the state time to write a new formula.
Brownback was a vocal critic of the pre-2015 formula, leading to its removal in favor of a limited block grant formula that is set to expire June 30.
The conservative governor also has been an advocate of measures designed to help parents who are unhappy with their public schools but cannot afford private schools. The bill would expand a tax-credit program encouraging donations to private-school scholarship funds but otherwise doesn't expand school-choice options. Conservatives also complained that it doesn't do enough to hold public schools accountable.
"The Legislature missed an opportunity to substantially improve the K-12 funding system," Brownback said in a statement.
But the governor also said the new formula would direct more of the state's dollars into classrooms and encourage "responsible financial stewardship at the local level."
The Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City school districts filed the lawsuit in 2010, arguing that Kansas doesn't spend enough money on its schools and has distributed it unfairly, hurting poorer districts. The Supreme Court has ruled in previous cases that the state constitution requires legislators to finance a suitable education for every child.
— The Associated Press Contributed to this story