After a ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court declaring that the current financial formula to fund public schools in the state did not provide adequate funding, Kansas lawmakers now have a summer deadline to fix the situation, or face the reality that public schools will not be able to open in the fall.
The current financing formula, commonly referred to as “Block Grants,” were put into place by Governor Sam Brownback in 2015 and changed the way and the amount that schools were given money. However, a ruling this February from the Supreme Court declared that school districts were underfunded with that formula by at least $54 million. The Supreme Court found this formula unconstitutional and inequitable under the sixth article of the Kansas Constitution, thus creating the issue that is threatening the opening of schools next fall.
Dr. Stessman, superintendent of USD 450, is often found at the Kansas Capitol advocating for better funding in Kansas schools.
In an email to USD 450 staff the day of The Supreme Court ruling, Dr. Stessman explained the weight of the situation if an improved formula is not decided on by June 30. “Without a funding formula schools will not open next fall. Yes, you heard me correctly. If the Legislature doesn’t pass a new finance formula we will not have school next fall.“
The Supreme Court is pushing lawmakers to provide at least $100 million or more to the budget for the 2016-17 school year. The Supreme Court ruled that public schools are required to have similar education opportunities found through taxes under the Kansas Constitution.
“Everyone has their own opinion about what it would take to make [education funding] equitable, and generally that is somewhere between $50 and $76 million, which they don’t have,” Dr. Stessman explained in an interview. “And they aren’t going to raise taxes to pay for this because it’s an election year.”
However, this is not the first time that public education in Kansas has been threatened by either budget cuts or other laws in Kansas. In the Supreme Court case Montoy v. State starting in 1999 lasting through 2005, Montoy argued that the public education funding at the time didn’t meet constitutional obligations. Many other court cases appeared over the years such as Mock V. State and Caldwell V. State. Although many citizens are not surprised that this issue is continuing to create controversy, the governor expressed frustration with the ruling..
“Kansas has among the best schools in the nation and an activist Kansas Supreme Court is threatening to shut them down,” Brownback stated after the Supreme Court decision. “We will review this decision closely and work with the Legislature to ensure the continued success of our great Kansas schools.”
To make matters even more complicated, following the ruling, a bill was proposed to possibly impeach Kansas Supreme Court judges if they commit “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Some in the Legislature argued that this ruling fell in that category. However, as of February 22, the debate was tabled until a later date.
Although the likelihood is that a new formula is decided before the deadline, the possibility of schools not opening in the fall causes parents, students, and teachers to discuss other options such as homeschooling or attending private schools. Another barrier to this complicated situation is that it is an election year, and lawmakers want to be re-elected.
“The politics of this are both fascinating, complicated, and sickening. If people really knew what was going on and how much coercion existed, they would be shocked,” Stessman stated.