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Judicial Overreach in Kansas Means Higher Taxes

A three judge panel comprising the Shawnee Country District Court in Kansas has ruled that the Legislature violated the state Constitution by reducing funding for public education.  The cuts have come at a time when local governments have struggled to collect enough tax revenue to fund local services and initiatives.  The lawsuit, brought by a coalition of 54 Kansas school districts was hailed as a victory by Alan Rupe, the plaintiff’s attorney. 

Three judges found that since 2009, the Legislature — in concert with Kansas Govs. Mark Parkinson and Sam Brownback — cut school spending in violation of the constitution.

In their 250-page opinion, the Shawnee County District Court judges called the education cuts “an obvious and continuing pattern of disregard of constitutional funding.”

Lawmakers are facing a shortfall due in part to tax cuts passed with the intention of spurring job creation.  The lawsuit brought by school districts would raise taxes on parents that duly elected representatives to decrease their taxes.  This dichotomy points to a problem with the funding formula used to pay for public education.  In short, spending is too high and taxpayers want relief.  Schools wish to continue to spend at pre recession levels and seek higher taxes to fund that spending.

The judges said the state needs to bring annual state base aid to the legally required level of $4,492 per student, up from the current level of $3,838. 

While this number sounds very low, funding from real estate property tax makes up the difference.  However, there is a limitation on how much of the budget local property taxes can total. 

Currently, local property taxes can amount to no more than 31 percent of a district's budget. Hensley's bill would move that to 33 percent in the 2013-2014 school year before hiking it to 35 percent in the next school year.

The move promises to please wealthy districts, such as Blue Valley in the Kansas City area, while causing poor districts to worry they're falling behind because any increase in the mill levy in their districts produces only modest increases. Brownback's attempt last year to eliminate the cap on what local districts can raise failed. 

Ruling Highlights other Constitutional issues

Are appropriations the purview of the Legislature alone?  Not according to the ruling issued by the Kansas court. By mandating a minimum spending threshold it has taken the role of appropriator from the local elected governing body and placed it within the control of appointed officials.  This is a tactic that is often used to circumvent legislatures controlled by the opposing party.  In fact this (unconstitutional) tactic is being considered by President Obama to sidestep negotiations on spending cuts that Republicans seek to tie to the upcoming debt ceiling decision. 

Kansas legislators see a similar pattern in the ruling on the Kansas Constitution’s mandated school funding floor.

Republican legislative leaders have decried the decision.

"We clearly disagree with the courts," said Wagle on the first day of the 2013 legislative session. "We believe they have overstepped their boundaries. We believe they should not be appropriators and that that role should be clearly left in the hands of elected officials."

Increased spending doesn’t mean higher achievement

Money isn’t the only issue here, although it would seem quite pressing in light of the continued insistence on filing lawsuits to force higher funding.  Private independent and and parochial schools have proven time and time again that per pupil spending isn’t the number one factor in student achievement.  High quality educational programming, high parental involvement and excellent teacher quality are the winning recipe for educational success.  It takes money to fund a school with these ingredients, but insisting on a solely money centered focus will not yield lasting measurable  improvement in student achievement. 

The court has ordered the funding increased by the new fiscal years start: which is July 1 for 2014.  Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt plans to appeal the ruling.