Mah discusses key points of judges’ school funding order

By Ann Mah

The three-judge panel issued an order Friday regarding the constitutionality of the block grant school funding law (SB7) the Legislature passed this year. A hearing was held in May on that issue. Friday the panel ruled that SB7 was unconstitutional on both equity and adequacy.

Equity is about funding fairness (i.e., does it work for all districts, whether rich or poor).  Adequacy means does it provide enough money to fund the kind of education we have decided we want. Last year the courts first ruled on the equity portion and said it was inequitable. The Legislature had to put $129 million more into school funding. With the block grants the Legislature cut about $51 million of that $129 million before the school year was over, so it’s no real surprise the courts were not happy on that account.

So what happens now? AG Schmidt has asked for a stay of the order until it works its way through the system. I would expect the courts to rule on that ASAP. Depending on how this goes, we might have to have a special session yet either right away or sometime this summer to figure out the additional funding.

Here are some of the key points:

  • SB7 is unconstitutional and violates the court order from March 2014.
  • KPERS payments are not able to be used for school operations and do not contribute to the adequacy of funding.
  • The extraordinary need fund in SB7 only took away from other school funding. The fund should not be managed by legislators on the State Finance Council.
  • Certain duties are the job of local school boards and the state board of education, not the Legislature (i.e., which schools need extra money, oversight of school districts).
  • SB7 does not allow for demographic changes that school districts undergo that can increase cost (i.e., more or poorer students).
  • The “flexibility” SB7 claims to give districts in moving money between funds does not help when funding is inadequate to begin with.
  • Allowing districts to increase their LOB doesn’t work because of the freeze at 2015 levels.
  • SB7 still contains inequities in capital outlay and Local Option Budget funding where there is a disparity between property rich and property poor districts.
  • SB7 does not hold districts “harmless” as it claimed, but cut funding in the current and next two years. Capital outlay and supplemental (LOB) funding that was cut for the 2015 school year in SB7 is to be paid to the schools by July1. Funding for 2016 and 2017 will also have to be increased.
  • Funding for next year must be based on current enrollment rather than last year’s enrollment as SB7 requires.
  • The block grant itself remains in place, but these temporary restraining orders mitigate the negative impacts on school districts.

Sometimes with all the legislative and judicial stuff going on it’s hard to remember the goal is to educate all Kansas children equitably. Good news is that this order was a win for Kansas kids.

Editor’s note: Ann Mah is a former state representative who still keeps an eye on the Legislature. She shares her observations in an email newsletter that she calls Neighborhood News.

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