Several times over the past half-century, the Kansas courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeated a fundamental message: The quality of education in a school district should not depend on the wealth of that district.
The Supreme Court said it again, in an 88-page ruling on Oct. 2. It was the fifth time in seven years that the Court had summoned equitable and suitable school finance, and there have been at least five others in the past 25 years.
Why does this keep happening? For starters, local politics and economies are apt to change. A sudden turn of state or federal law, shifts in the size and makeup of communities and other trends and surprises can scramble even the best administration of a school district.
Not long after the state’s School Unification Act created 305 districts (from thousands) in 1963, disparities began to grow. The quality of local schools depended most on the health of a community’s economy and the will of its taxpayers. At the top, some districts thrived; at the bottom, many could barely manage. In the vast middle, schools were making do by doing without.
A question was taken to court: Should youngsters be deprived of quality education because they live in a region that is struggling? The Court’s answer, in 1972, was no. Legislators then crafted the School District Equalization Act (1973) for aid to local schools. It was driven by a formula that defined a district’s wealth: taxable income (25 percent) plus tangible property value (75 percent).
Through the formula, poorer districts would receive more aid than affluent ones. There were also a few “no-aid” districts among the state’s wealthier regions, chiefly the commercial and suburban northeast, and the agricultural and resource-rich southwest.
This law would become a national model for local school finance. For a long time in Kansas, education budgets were mostly an uneventful matter for legislators – at times, even, an afterthought. As always in the course of things, change brought growth to some regions while others languished. At times the turn was dramatic – a price collapse in oil and equities, a drought, inflation, bank closures, people or business moving away, or swarming in. These and other factors were changing district wealth across Kansas. Disparities widened.
Anxieties were heightened when federal tax cuts (1986) exposed more Kansas income to state taxation. At the same time statewide property classification and reappraisal (1989) skewed components of the traditional formula even further.
Taxable income was suddenly an average 56 percent of school district wealth (not 25 percent) and property values, 44 percent (not 75). The finance formula that had worked so well for so long was turned on its head. Without revision, it would penalize scores of communities placed almost overnight among the ranks of high-income school districts; they faced dramatic losses in state aid and soaring property tax bills.
By late 1989, angry protests against those looming tax increases swept over the state. Gov. Mike Hayden called a special two-day session of the Legislature to deal with the issue. It adjourned in frustration. In 1990 and 1991, the Legislature and Gov. Joan Finney failed to agree on funding enough to repair the education finance formula; It could no longer bridge the gaps with infusions of state aid, then an amount approaching $900 million and rising. (It’s now $4 billion.)
In the summer of 1991, dozens of school districts sued the state, claiming the law no longer provided equitable financing or education opportunities in Kansas school districts. In October, a Shawnee County District Judge noted that huge disparities in regional wealth, combined with funding law at that time, violated a constitutional guarantee that the quality of education in a school district should not depend on the wealth of that district. Because education is a state responsibility, the judge said, regional wealth must be apportioned, or shared, more equitably. He invited the Legislature and Gov. Joan Finney to modify the law, and allowed them the 1992 legislative session to do it.
With historic effort, they created another national model for education funding. The school finance act of 1992 became the framework for school budgets in Kansas, advancing four fundamental principles: – A statewide uniform property tax for schools; – local spending limits; – local wealth as a state resource, shared among rich and poor communities; – state funding of local schools based on their enrollment.
Statewide school finance was conceived, essentially, as local public funding through uniform state taxation, and based chiefly on the number of students to be educated, not the wealth of a district. Help was available for those in need.
The uniform property tax was the financial footing for basic per-pupil aid, the allocations based on the number of students to be educated. Additional state funding was provided for students with special needs, nearly all of them outlined in statute; there was money for capital projects and aid for supplemental “local option” budgets financed with district taxes.
This law, with occasional adjustments, worked well in spite of numerous challenges that fizzled in the courts. It was weakened only by the refusal of legislators to finance it adequately. The judiciary issued repeated warnings.Legislators ultimately responded and by 2009, the courts determined that state funding seemed adequate, driven by basic aid at $4,443 per pupil – an $843 increase in the 16 years the law had been in effect.
Had it remained, this overall system, with adjustments to meet changes in local economies, demographics, population shifts and district consolidations. Had it remained in effect, might have prevented or lessened rising inequities among schools in the state’s wealthy and poor regions, between sparsely populated rural districts and the more crowded urban centers and expanding suburbs.
Gov. Sam Brownback never understood the law or its premise, so he wanted to end it. The legislature began to slash funding for local schools, to rig the system against itself, to show that it was not working. By the end of the 2012 session, base per-pupil aid had been slashed to $3,780, barely above the $3,600 proscribed in the 1992 law. Among other benefits reduced or ended were aid to capital outlay and local option budgets, school meals and at-risk students.
In succeeding years legislators, at Brownback’s directive, further cut aid to schools, then froze the amounts and divvied the money among local districts in a convoluted plan of “block grant” funding. Districts that found themselves short-changed were invited to come to Topeka for an appeal – before a kangaroo court composed of the governor and lawmakers who had crafted the grants to begin with.
The 2016 elections turned out many of the incumbents responsible this disaster. Aware of public discontent, the legislature replaced Brownback’s folly with a school finance formula that much resembles the framework of the 1992 act that had served Kansas for more than two decades. Earlier this month the Court accepted the structure of the revised law and its path to reviving proper school funding.
Now comes the essential, difficult part: the money. The legislature must satisfy the Court’s scrutiny for adequate funding, estimated at hundreds of millions in the near future. Kansas can recover much of it by restoring former taxes and revoking the loopholes and abatements lavished on select businesses and the wealthy. The Court will be watching. Legislators need the public’s support – not for themselves but for schools – for the financing so long neglected, and now so sorely needed.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL