- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - A case that has the potential to increase funding for Kansas schools goes before the state Supreme Court on Friday, the same day that economists, legislative researchers and officials in Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration are expected to announce new, more pessimistic revenue projections.

Four districts that are suing the state have asked justices to lift a stay on a lower court ruling and release state funds to public school districts. A three-judge Shawnee County District Court panel found in June that the state’s newly enacted strategy for financing 286 school districts and cuts to state aid for low-income school districts were unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court approved Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s request for a stay on the order while he pursued an appeal. The state argues in court filings that “doomsday predictions” about students and the state suffering because of how schools are being funded “have proven to be pure hyperbole.”

Here is a look at the case.

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WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE STATE BUDGET

Education, from K-12 through the collegiate level, is the state’s largest expenditure, accounting for 62 percent of its budget. Any increase in education spending has the potential to create budget havoc when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Since the current fiscal year began in July, tax collections have fallen about 4.1 percent short of expectations, at $1.8 billion. The state has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging, in an effort to stimulate the economy.

John Robb, an attorney for the four school districts that are suing, said that “all Kansans should be concerned that their checkbook is running on empty, but in the larger sense, they have the power to put more money in their checkbook if they want to. … It’s called a tax increase.”

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CHANGING METHODS OF PAYING FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION

Kansas distributed money to public school for nearly 23 years using a formula that provided a certain amount per pupil and additional money based on things such as whether districts served large numbers of poor or non-English speaking students.

But this spring, the Legislature scrapped the old formula. Instead it adopted “block grants” based on what districts received in 2013-14. The law provides for grants only through June 2017, and its backers anticipated from the beginning that legislators would draft a replacement formula.

Brownback and some GOP legislators had argued that the old formula was too complicated and didn’t get enough dollars into classrooms. They said it also sometimes forced unanticipated increases in state aid.

In its latest ruling, the Shawnee County panel of judges said the change made the distribution of more than $4 billion a year less fair.

One issue before the Supreme Court is whether the new funding formula harms districts because it provides no mechanism for them receiving additional money if their enrollment grows or they begin serving more needy students. Another issue is whether the state must pay $54 million that the plaintiffs allege is due to poor districts.

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NATIONAL BACKDROP

Legal battles over school finance are common nationwide.

The high court in Washington state recently ordered $100,000 in daily fines until the governor and Legislature devised a new funding system. In Texas, attorneys for more than 600 school districts argue that the funding is inadequate and unfairly distributed.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, attorneys across the country began to focus on the system of using property taxes to pay for schools. They argued that children from low-income families were disadvantaged by that because property taxes raise more money in wealthy communities than poor communities. Attorneys have argued, sometimes successfully in these so-called equity cases, that the unequal funding is a violation of state constitutions. In the 1990s, schools also began arguing that overall funding levels were inadequate.

The current Kansas case - filed on behalf of the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts - contends that funding isn’t equitable or adequate. The equity issues involving the $54 million in funding for poor districts are to be argued first. The justices won’t take up until spring whether the state must boost its annual spending by at least $548 million to address adequacy concerns.

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Online:

Kansas school funding case: https://bit.ly/1McxBMP

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