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Court Hits Kansas Taxpayers With $500 Million School Bill

Kansas taxpayers could be on the hook for another $500 million a year in school funding following a decision by a state court, which ruled that current education funding is “inadequate from any rational perspective” and therefore unconstitutional.

The decision, announced Tuesday afternoon by a three-judge panel, says that the funding system established by Kansas’s legislature fall short of the state’s constitution requirement that “suitable provision” be made for public schooling, and require strong, immediate remedies.

“Avoidance is no longer an option,” the judges wrote.

Currently, the state contributes about $3,800 per pupil to school budgets each year, and that should increase by about $800, the court said. The total expected pricetag for such a shift, along with other special spending boosts, is $548 million.

That’s a staggering sum for Kansas lawmakers, as the state is already grappling with a budget deficit of almost $280 million, which is expected to balloon to over $400 million next year. If upheld, Tuesday’s ruling could more than double that financial burden at a stroke.

The ruling is also a huge blow to the policy decisions of Governor Sam Brownback, who won reelection in November but is still dogged by low popularity. Most blame the state’s huge deficits on big tax cuts that Brownback passed early in his term, and while the governor hopes to offset deficits with spending cuts, Tuesday’s ruling would likely leave Brownback with no choice but to substantially increase taxes.

Gov. Brownback’s initial statement in response did not say whether an appeal would be filed, but one is expected.

Brownback’s political foes were quick to pounce on the governor.

“Governor Brownback talked a big game about school funding while he campaigned for re-election last fall,” said Democratic state representative Tom Burroughs. “Now it’s time for him to ante up and finally restore dollars back to our classrooms. It’s what Kansans want and what our children deserve.”

The court’s costly decision is rooted in a similar ruling issued in 1989 in Kentucky, Rose v. Council for Better Education. In that case, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitutional guarantee of a public education required that sufficient public funds be furnished for students to attain basic goals such as learning oral and written communication and having a basic grasp of the civic and political system.

While the Rose decision is only binding in Kentucky, it’s reasoning has been influential and has been applied in several other states. In Kansas’s case, the constitutional issue arose because judges determined the state government was illegally counting on local governments to make up education funding gaps with property taxes rather than furnishing the needed funds itself.

Lawsuits seeking judicial intervention to compel greater school funding have been in the arsenal of activists for some time and remain popular, although they often inflict major budgetary agony on a state when successful. In 2012, for instance, the Washington Supreme Court ordered that state to implement billions of dollars in spending hikes before the end of the decade, a demand the state government is still struggling to meet.

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