TOPEKA — The Kansas Supreme Court says lawmakers are an inflation adjustment away from satisfying its mandate to adequately and equitably fund public schools, giving the Legislature another one-year reprieve to fix its new plan.
By keeping schools open, the court avoids a showdown with lawmakers weeks away from a primary election while making clear it will retain jurisdiction to ensure the plan is fully funded.
Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican and architect of the new plan, said he expects the adjustment to be less than $100 million.
“This is about the best we could hope for from the court,” Patton said.
Although justices said the plan remains unconstitutional, they endorsed an effort to restore per-pupil spending levels the court accepted more than a decade earlier. Lawmakers this year passed legislation that will phase in $522 million over fiver years, adding to an increase of more than $300 million from a year ago.
At the end of five years, the plan calls for spending to increase yearly in correlation to a rolling three-year average of the consumer price index. But the court said lawmakers failed to calculate inflation for the most recent and upcoming school years. They also failed to account for inflation during the five-year rollout.
However, the court said, the new plan resolves problems with how money is distributed among schools.
“By timely making financial adjustments in response to the plan’s identified problems and its accompanying calculations — and then by completing the plan — the state can bring the system into constitutional compliance,” the court said.
This year’s funding boost cleared both the House and Senate with the minimum number of votes needed to pass. Upcoming elections are certain to shape the challenge for lawmakers when they return.
Steve Karlin, Superintendent of Schools for USD 457 in Garden City, said in a telephone interview on Monday that he was pleased with the court's decision.
"It appears to me that the court affirmed the adequacy of funding was not at a constitutional level since 2008," Karlin said. "That encompasses almost a generation of school children."
Karlin also noted that the legislature during the 2018 session got reasonably close in terms of the structure of the formula that the court had requested.
"The court said that the legislature has to make a provision for inflation, and that it must account for inflation for the entire term to the current school year," Karlin said in his assessment of the decision.
Karlin said that the legislature's fix of more than $500 million statewide for the 2018-19 school year means an increase of $1.7 million in state aid for USD 457. But, because of the lateness of the court's ruling, the district will play catchup on making its final budget plans.
"Normally, we would have had a lot done by now and had been fully into preparing for the next school year," Karlin said. "But I'm confident we will get it done in time to meet the state requirements."
The biggest sigh of relief, though, is that the 2018-19 school year will begin on time, Karlin said.
"That's the most pleasing part of the decision," Karlin said. "This will be good for the kids and we know when classes will start."
Alan Rupe, an attorney for the schools who sued the state, said the effort by lawmakers “simply falls short of the mark.”
“We trust that the Legislature can come together and solve the issue in short order to avoid any future disruption of Kansas students’ education,” Rupe said. “The cuts to education were painful as they occurred and continue to be as painful today. We look forward to gaining the resources to reverse these cuts. Our kids deserve no less.”
This lawsuit was filed in 2010 after the state began making cuts to education funding while navigating an economic downturn. After enacting severe tax cuts that proved to be a disaster for the state budget, lawmakers attempted rewriting its education formula through block grants in 2015.
Faced with intensifying judicial scrutiny, lawmakers boosted funding last year. In November, the high court issued its mandate and promised it would no longer be complicit in denying children the education they were owed.
In Monday’s ruling, the court recognized work by lawmakers to designate funding for at-risk students, early childhood education, special education and mentor teachers.
Because lawmakers are close to making the plan constitutional, the court said, there was no need to consider a controversial study that suggested the state needed to add as much as $2 billion annually to address performance goals.
The state argued that a new requirement for local option budgets to stay above 15 percent of state aid actually pushes the total for new money above $1 billion, but the high court remains skeptical of the LOB impact. The court said it won’t generate any “new” money because every district already meets the 15 percent requirement.
“It is unknown how much of the increased LOB authority will actually lead to additional funding across the state,” the court said. “This uncertainty exists because each of the 286 districts has the discretion to determine how much of its authority it will use.”
The Telegram staff contributed to portions of this story.