UPDATE, June 25, 4:57 p.m.: The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Monday that state lawmakers’ education funding plan remains inadequate. The court gave the GOP-majority legislature another year to come up with a solution to the school funding crisis.
Following teacher strikes in West Virginia, New Jersey, and Oklahoma, Kansas could be the next state facing school shutdowns—not because teachers are striking for better pay and benefits, but because the state’s GOP-held legislature continues to fund schools at a level the state Supreme Court has deemed unconstitutional.
In the 2010 lawsuit Gannon v. Kansas, local school districts sued the state alleging the Kansas legislature underfunded schools. The state supreme court has repeatedly agreed, ruling in 2016 and 2017 that funds were unconstitutionally low, and requiring the legislature to “adequately and equitably” fund education as written in the state constitution.
“The supreme court was very strong in its wording in the last judgment saying it would not be complicit in leaving a generation behind,” said Heather Ousley, an education advocate and member of the Shawnee Mission School Board. “The supreme court is certainly at its breaking point with the legislature’s attempts to shirk its responsibilities.”
Kansas lawmakers in 2017 passed a new funding formula in an attempt to satisfy the court, but justices determined the formula unconstitutional last fall, and gave lawmakers an April 30 deadline to find a solution. Lawmakers so far have been slow to respond, and should the legislature fail to pass a school funding measure that meets the court’s demands, schools will close by July 1, Ousley said.
“If you have something that is unconstitutional, it is the court’s responsibility to end the unconstitutional practice so what the court would be saying is, ‘This is an unconstitutional funding formula, you can not distribute funds under this formula, we are striking it,’ and that closes schools because districts won’t receive funding,” Ousley said.
The state house K-12 Education Budget Committee passed a funding measure last week, providing $500 million in funding over the next five years. This came the day after Republican state senators rejected a $600 million increase endorsed by state senate Democrats.
Some education advocates are concerned it isn’t enough to satisfy the courts. Republican lawmakers recently commissioned a study conducted by Lori Taylor, a professor at Texas A&M University, that revealed an investment of at least $400 million is needed to restore education funding to a maintenance level. To improve education outcomes, Taylor suggested $2 billion in additional education funding over the next five years.
“I think it could be a good strategy, but I’m worried it’s not enough of a funding increase,” said Democratic state Rep. Nancy Lusk (Overland Park) of the recent proposal. “I support fully restoring education funding. We can have a more educated workforce, but you get what you pay for.”
The recently formed Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding last week introduced a constitutional amendment in the house tax committee to “clarify the language” in the state constitution, which states the legislature must make “suitable” provisions to finance education. The amendment would further define what “suitable” means, potentially making it more difficult for school districts to sue. To change the state constitution, two-thirds majorities in both the state house and senate would have to pass the amendment. It would then go to a statewide vote, where a majority of Kansans would have to approve it.
The state’s education funding crisis began during the 2008 recession, as state legislatures across the United States scrambled to cut spending while many state governments gave tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy. Federal funds helped keep education and other social services afloat, but in 2012, at the urging of Republican then-Gov. Sam Brownback and with support from Republicans in the legislature, Kansas lawmakers passed sweeping income tax cuts, just as federal funds were running out.
State revenues fell $700 million in the first year of the tax cuts and have never recovered, even with population growth. Base aid per pupil peaked in 2009 at $4,400, not far behind the $4,492 level required by Kansas law, but since then total funding per pupil has fallen more than $700 million behind inflation through 2017, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards. Local school districts have seen state aid drop by 13.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation, and Kansas has cut more education funding over the past ten years than all but seven other states, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
“The ultra conservatives [in the legislature] want to find anything they can to avoid having to deal with the stark reality that they were complicit and followed Brownback’s grand experiment and it was an abject failure,” said Marcus Baltzell, communications director for the Kansas National Education Association. “They don’t want to do the heavy lifting to deal with this but they’re going to have to.”
Kansans in 2016 elected more Democrats and moderate Republicans, ousting 14 incumbent conservatives and thus making the legislature more moderate than it had been under Brownback’s tenure. The influx of moderate and progressive legislators resulted in a rollback of a signature piece of Brownback’s tax cuts—an income tax exemption for limited liability corporations (LLCs), which includes about 300,000 Kansas businesses.
Closing the LLC loophole in 2017 raised $1.2 billion in revenue over two years, about $300 million of which went to education funding. It wasn’t enough to restore constitutionally adequate funding, Ousley said, but enough to give teachers their largest salary increase in nine years.
“The reason it was large was because it was compensating for the fact that teachers had been given nothing for so long,” Ousley said.
While Baltzell said he commends teacher efforts in West Virginia and Oklahoma, Kansas teachers are not planning a strike.
“Public schools are a vital resource for every community in every way and when they shut down for whatever reason, whether it is school funding or for teacher pay, we see communities go into a deep slide and that is when things start to change,” he said. “So in effect, the legislature is kind of forcing the state to go down the same path but from a different point of view. It’s a shame our legislature can’t just do what we need to be done.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Kansas schools would close at the end of April if education isn’t adequately funded.