A three-judge school finance court has ruled that current funding of schools is inadequate under the state Constitution.

Acting on earlier direction from the state Supreme Court, the Shawnee County District Court panel concluded that current funding falls short of what are called the “Rose standards,” a multi-part test for adequacy of school spending outlined in a Kentucky case and adopted by courts across the country.

“We find the Kansas public education financing system provided by the legislature for grades K-12 – through structure and implementation — is not presently reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the Rose factors,” said the court’s decision, released shortly after noon Tuesday. “As we have analyzed, it is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence presented or proffered to us.”

That’s something that USD 457’s Superintendent Dr. Rick Atha does not find surprising.

“Clearly the legislature is not adequately funding K-12 education,” Atha said. “The base start aid per pupil has declined from $4,400 per student in 2009 to $3,800 per student this fiscal year. According to the ruling today, the base state aide per pupil should be increased to a minimum of $4,654 per student.”

What may be surprising, Atha said, is how the state and governor respond.

“Will they appeal the district court’s decision to the state supreme court, or will the follow the court’s ruling? If this is their course of action, where will they find the revenue? To say the least it’s going to be an interesting and memorable legislative session,” Atha said.

In its ruling, the court wrote of the need for a “bright-line” amount of school funding but did not specify an amount to add to base state aid to reach it.

“We caution here we are not directing an exact BSAPP figure nor are we directing any exact method to any funding, but rather only noting parameters which should be considered in formulation to avoid unconstitutional results,” the ruling said.

The court did offer the Legislature some possible fixes, however, noted John Robb, the attorney for Schools for Fair Funding, the group that represents the plaintiff districts.

The state could increase base state aid per pupil to $4,654 from its current level of $3,852 and also increase weightings in order to meet the constitutional requirement. Or it could leave the weightings untouched and raise base aid to $4,980.

These fixes would cost between $548 million and $771 million a year, Robb said. “I think they’re just telling the Legislature that if you do this, the problem will go away.”

Robb praised the ruling as a great victory for Kansas kids and said that it confirms that a decades-long problem of underfunding schools continues to persist.

The ruling is certain to be appealed.

Gov. Sam Brownback said in a statement that he was “still digesting the full implication of the district court’s 116-page ruling. I continue to believe that restructuring the school funding formula and implementing education policy reforms is critical not only to getting more money into our classrooms but also improving student achievement. I will be working with legislative leadership to address the best path forward.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said in a statement that the ruling confirms that “the school finance formula is not broken, it is underfunded. Governor Brownback’s largest cut to K-12 funding in Kansas history is threatening the quality of education our children are receiving wherever they may reside in our state.”

If upheld on appeal, the court decision would provide ranges and options for the Legislature to consider.

The decision could ultimately require the addition of hundreds of millions of dollars in school funding, even as lawmakers face a $648 million budget deficit for next year.

Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, said Tuesday afternoon that he had not yet had a chance to thoroughly parse the decision but noted that an order for more school funding poses a challenge as the state grapples with its budget hole.

“I can say it will be difficult to find additional moneys,” said Abrams, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

The decision notes that the state faces a “self-imposed fiscal dilemma...both with or without this Opinion.”

Robb said the state’s budget shortfall may be a political barrier, but is not an excuse for lawmakers to not provide more funding for schools.

“The constitution does not say that kids are entitled to an adequate education only if there’s enough money in the checkbook,” Robb said.

Incoming House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs said in a statement that Gov. Sam Brownback “talked a good game” on school funding while campaigning for his re-election in November and now it’s time for him to “ante up.”

“Kansans never needed a court ruling to know that Governor Brownback’s education cuts have had a devastating impact on our communities and our economy,” the statement said. “Parents, teachers, and local leaders have struggled with higher fees, programs cuts and growing class sizes for far too long.”

Dave Trabert, the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Wichita, blasted the decision.

“This ruling willfully ignores a long list of facts that disprove school districts’ contentions,” said Trabert, a member of a state commission on school spending and an outspoken critic of the notion that more money is required to improve student outcomes.

“The judges essentially dusted off their original decision that was rejected by the Supreme Court and added some new legal jargon attempting to justify their original action in arriving at what is little more than a political decision,” Trabert said.

Local option budget money

The judges were also critical of the way that the Legislature uses locally generated property tax funds known as the local option budget to prop up school districts’ base budgets.

“One cannot classify the school financing structure as reliably constitutionally sound because the legislature has tied its constitutional duty to the unenforceable precept, yet parochial illusion, of local control and local funding choices as one linchpin for the assurance of constitutionally adequate funding,” the ruling said.

The judges ruled that even though some districts are using local option budget money to backfill the cost of basic education, it was instead intended to pay for extras beyond constitutionally required funding.

“We considered the accepted purpose of a LOB was for enhancements for a school district’s K-12 students which its local board wished to provide voluntarily in an effort to provide better than what (the state Constitution) might deem adequate,” the ruling said. “In other words ... a local choice to use local funds to provide the most optimum education its taxpayers were willing to voluntarily support.”

The court expressly rejected a state law passed by the Legislature to try to force courts to recognize local option budget money as part of the constitutional test of whether the Legislature provides suitable funding for education.

“One cannot accept the State’s argument … as constitutionally sound just because such dollar adequacy might exist at this, or any other, moment in time,” the court wrote. “To do so would make the ... constitutional assurance of an adequate education in light of the Rose factors a function of fortuity and local largess rather than one of enforceable constitutional substance.”

Mark Desetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said the ruling affirms what the union and school districts have been saying all along: There’s not enough money and that’s because of tax cuts and spending decisions made by the governor and Legislature.

He also said it’s important that the court came down as strongly as it did on using local option budgets to compensate for state cuts.

“All kids need the same opportunity,” he said. “The more you rely on local funding that is tightly tied to property values, the more difficult that becomes.”

Noting that an appeal is a virtual certainty, he said he doesn’t know if the court decision will have much effect on the legislative session that starts Jan. 12.

“I don’t think they, some of them, are going to be happy with this decision.”

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said that since the decision will likely be appealed it may not have an impact on this legislative session. “It goes without saying that this will be appealed and we’ll actually wait for the Supreme Court to make its ruling before anything’s going to happen,” he said.

However, he also said that he was anxious to push for rewriting the school finance formula, something many conservatives have wanted for years, regardless of the district court decision.

“The courts are going to do what the courts are going to do. And the need for relooking at the formula is independent of a court decision,” Huebert said.

Robb said that calls to change the formula were an attempt by conservatives to obscure the issue.

“There are some that use the smokescreen and call it complicated and demand change, but I think that’s a subterfuge. It’s just underfunded. And the courts have found that again,” Robb said. “Something like 25 judges have looked at this and they’ve all came to the same conclusion. They can’t all be radical judges.”

The ruling’s history

The panel’s decision was its second swing at the case. The three judges initially found in January 2013 that the state’s funding of schools was both inadequate and inequitable.

The state appealed.

In an appeals ruling issued in March, the Supreme Court concurred with the trial panel that the funding was inequitable and that the Legislature had created “unconstitutional, wealth-based disparities” by the way it distributed money between districts. It ordered the Legislature to address that issue promptly.

But it set aside the panel’s ruling that the state had underfunded education by about $440 million a year, saying the panel had used the wrong legal test for determining adequacy of funding.

The justices sent that part of the case back to the trial panel with lengthy instructions on how to proceed.

The Legislature passed a bill complying with the Supreme Court order to spend $129 million to cure the equity problem. That fix was accepted by the panel of judges.

But the question of overall adequacy of funding remained at issue.

The trial panel had originally ruled that the state was underfunding schools based on finance studies that had been presented in an earlier Kansas school-finance case.

The Supreme Court ruled that wasn’t sufficient proof of inadequate funding and directed the panel to also apply the so-called Rose standard to the case.

Read more here: http://www.kansas.com/news/local/education/article5169564.html#storylink=cpy

Telegram reporter Angie Haflich contributed to this story.