Court orders legislative quandary: Whether (and how) to fund education equalization?
State Rep. Blaine Finch, 59th District, Franklin and Osage Counties
Greetings from the Kansas Statehouse. As I write to you it is Friday morning and for the first time in many weeks no one here is checking the Supreme Court website to see if the school finance decision has been handed down. The court announced the decision in the Gannon case last Friday and the focus has turned to how it affects this legislative session.
At issue in the case was whether the legislature has met the constitutional duty to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” The court’s ruling is complex but it can be distilled down to a few key parts. First, the court said the legislature has not made suitable provision for education. Second, the court made it clear that suitability has two components; adequacy, whether the legislature is appropriating enough; and equity, whether students in different districts can have a reasonable chance at receiving an equal education with similar local tax effort. Third, the court declined to set a specific number for adequacy and in fact said the question is not strictly about dollars and cents. Fourth, instead of focusing on dollars, the court said we should use six standards called the Rose standards to determine whether our educational system is adequate. Fifth, all dollars spent on education should be counted towards determining adequacy of funding. This included dollars spent on buildings and teacher pension contributions. Sixth, the state had failed to equitably fund education because it has cut back on capital outlay payments to districts and local option budget (LOB) equalization funding over the last several years.
The court was far more focused on this last part of the equation. It remanded the case back down to the three judge panel that originally heard the case and gave the legislature until July 1 to fix the equity issues. Kansas has long had a tradition of trying to ensure that students from Pomona had access to the same or similar education as those in Prairie Village. Two of the ways that has been done is to equalize funding through capital outlay – helping districts upgrade or build schools with supplemental aid based on the property valuation in the district – and LOBs that allow for additional local taxes to be levied but allowing for supplemental aid to flow to those districts that cannot raise as much due to lower property valuation.
Those cuts I mentioned earlier have left these two areas about $130 million short. If the legislature declines to make changes to the formula or the funding the whole equalization system may be in jeopardy. The discussion over the next several weeks will focus on whether and where the state will find the dollars to fund the equalization formula. This will be the single largest issue of the last three weeks of the session, so please stay tuned.
In closing, I encourage you to let me know about any issues that are important to you at firstname.lastname@example.org or 785-296-7655. It is my privilege and honor to serve you as your representative in Topeka.