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Associated Press
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback talks during a news conference Friday. The state’s public school funding levels were ruled unconstitutional.

Kansas’ funding for schools ruled unconstitutional

Governor’s tax cuts in jeopardy; state high court orders increase

– Kansas must spend more money on its public schools, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday in a decision that could jeopardize Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s desire to make his state a tax-cutting template for the nation.

The high court’s ruling, which found that Kansas’ school funding isn’t constitutional, came in a 2010 lawsuit filed by parents and school districts.

“This decision is an important one in sending a message to states across the nation that need to reform their financing systems to get their house in order,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, in Newark, N.J., which filed a brief in the Kansas case.

The case has broader implications beyond the classroom: Kansas enacted sweeping cuts to income taxes in 2012 and 2013 championed by Brownback that have reduced the amount of available resources to comply with a court order on education funding.

Lawmakers could be forced to reconsider the income tax measures – pushed as a means to stimulate the economy and estimated to be worth nearly $3.9 billion over the next five years.

Other Republican-run states have looked at such cuts, including this year in Oklahoma and Missouri.

“If we don’t do something to make sure the revenue is there, then we’re going to be in this continuing morass around school funding,” said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers union, which called on lawmakers to boost total funding immediately.

Instead of balking, Brownback and other leaders of the state’s GOP-dominated government said they were pleased because the decision stopped short of telling legislators exactly how much the state must spend on its schools overall, leaving that responsibility to a lower court.

“It was not an unreasonable decision,” Senate President Susan Wagle said.

The court ordered legislators Friday to boost funding on two types of aid for poor school districts – supplementing property tax revenue for general operations and capital improvement projects – by July 1.

But there’s no deadline for the lower court to provide overall funding numbers.

John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, saw Friday’s ruling as a victory because the justices rejected the state’s arguments that the funding issue was political, to be determined solely by the legislature and governor.

He predicted that after the next round of lower-court hearings, the outcome will mirror what happened previously: An order for the state to increase its total annual spending on schools by at least $440 million.

Nevertheless, Brownback told reporters he does not see any need to reconsider the tax cuts because the reductions are spurring economic growth.

“We need to grow the number of people working in this state,” Brownback said.

Kansas cut its annual base aid to schools by $386 million over several years as tax revenue declined during the recent recession, although it did cover some rising costs, such as teacher pensions. After the base-aid cuts, school districts trimmed their staffs, cut after-school programs and raised fees for parents. Classrooms also became more crowded.

State attorneys had said legislators did the best they could to maintain education spending among the reduced available revenues during the recession, pointing to efforts to raise the state sales tax rate in 2010 and the reliance on federal stimulus funding to keep spending stable.

David Morantz, a Leawood attorney and father of three children who attend public schools, said he’s glad the court is requiring lawmakers to meeting their constitutional duties, but he said, “It doesn’t look like the fight is over.”

“We, as parents and as citizens of Kansas, have to follow the constitution, and it’s not too much to ask for them to do it, too,” he said.