Kansas governor Sam Brownback hasn't been able to satisfy state courts
Kansas governor Sam Brownback hasn't been able to satisfy state courts | Albert H. Teich, Shutterstock

Kansas schools face shutdown amid budget woes

The fight over state budget funding is creating a looming crisis for Kansas public schools.

Last week, the state Supreme Court rejected for the second time a funding plan by Sunflower State lawmakers, upholding a ruling from the state Court of Appeals amid concerns that it did not fund schools equitably.

Lawmakers resumed budget discussions Wednesday, but have made no progress on a new measure that passes Constitutional muster. If they fail to find enough money to properly fund the schools, the system is set for shutdown on June 30.

"Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30,” the Kansas Supreme Court wrote in its 47-page ruling on May 26.

“Accordingly, the Legislature’s chosen path during the 2016 session will ultimately determine whether Kansas students will be treated fairly and the schoolhouse doors will be open to them in August for the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year,” the court said in its latest decision, adding that the current funding plan "creates intolerable, and simply unfair, wealth-based disparities among the districts."

Some Kansans blame the budget shortfall on cuts in personal income taxes from as far back as 2012 and 2013, that have created a revenue shortfall. The figure hit about $76 million as of May, as the end of the fiscal year looms.

Now, the heat is on Gov. Sam Brownback to make cuts elsewhere, creating fears in higher education where new cuts were expected, as well as likely cuts in spending on the state's Medicaid program, road construction and in payments due to the state pension system.

Brownback, a Republican, switched the state's education funding to a block grant program last year with an eye on revising a per pupil expenditure plan. Thus far, such a plan has not come to fruition. The state is now facing a $54 million deficit for low-income schools districts.

"The courts should not be playing politics with our children’s education," Brownback said in a statement Wednesday, pushing back on the new court ruling. But the governor has not said if he would ask the legislature to return in special session to work on a new plan, even as a June 30 deadline looms.

Kansas lawmakers rewrote laws governing education funding in February, but that effort to make school funding more equitable did not pass muster from the state Supreme Court.

The justices last week, in ruling against it, said the latest funding strategy, through local option budgets (where a district could raise funds locally to add to its schools budget) would harm low-income districts where such a proposition would be difficult.

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, said education funding has forced many states to examine their formulas in the face of economic challenges in recent years.

He says it is difficult to predict where Kansas might go as the clock ticks on a fix, but suggests lawmakers look behind just the current time frame as they review funding priorities.

"I do think the long-term solutions here are going to go beyond what the June 30 deadline will be. I think it would be important for lawmakers there to learn something so they never are put into this situation again," he said.

"It is a problem that is going to have to be resolved by a wholesale change of thinking about how do we deliver a quality learning experience for children and cost-effective ways to do it."

In a legislative debate like the one currently facing Kansas, students and their educational successes often tend to get lost in adult wrangling, he added.

"We can talk about money forever — there is a debate that has happened nationally and state by state about school funding. But if we continue to fight over who can get the biggest slice of the pie, it takes the focus right off of students," Butcher said.

"Their outcomes take a back seat to what the adults think should be the inputs. And these adults have a lot of interests — teacher pensions, teacher salaries, school buildings. And while all of these do have a level of importance, it takes away from how to give every child in Kansas, and elsewhere, a chance at a quality education."