The big Kansas Supreme Court ruling on education finance comes down tomorrow

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GANNON V. KANSAS COULD RESHAPE BROWNBACK'S ADMINISTRATION
  • Gannon v. Kansas could reshape Brownback's administration
Sunflower State politicians are girding for the release of the long-awaited Kansas Supreme Court decision on K-12 education finance tomorrow morning.

Court officials told media to expect the decision at about 9:30 a.m. Friday.

Originally expected in January, the ruling could be a crucial one for the future of Kansas. Many expect that the Kansas Supreme Court could agree with a lower court's opinion that the state underfunds K-12 education and may order the state to increase its spending on schools by $500 million.

Kansas over the years has whittled away at the base state aid per pupil. Every student cost the state $4,400 in fiscal year 2009, but that figure has since dropped to $3,838. Courts have suggested the the funding rate should equal $4,492 per pupil. Kansas lawmakers say economic hardships make it impossible to send any more money to public education. But plaintiffs lawyers say the Kansas Constitution doesn't make exceptions for difficult times and requires adequate funding for public education. 

Some lawmakers, such as Gov. Sam Brownback, think schools get enough money and have warned that they may ignore the Kansas Supreme Court decision. Such a posture could test the limits and authority of the Kansas Supreme Court. 

This sort of thing almost happened before when the Kansas Supreme Court in 2005 decided that the state shorted education. It ordered increased funding, which some elected officials resisted until the 11th hour and eventually restored the court-ordered spending.

That decision fended off the possibility that the courts might order a shutdown of public schools until the Legislature did what it was told.

Those jittery days may come back to the Kansas Statehouse on Friday if the Kansas Supreme Court says once again that current K-12 spending isn't enough. It could reshape the upcoming gubernatorial election, too. One of Brownback's weaknesses in polling across a Republican-controlled state is that even some conservatives don't appreciate his stance on education funding.

Brownback has shown signs of apparent nervousness about tomorrow's decision. He said in his State of the State address in January that the decision of school funding should not rest with the courts, whose judges deliberate in private, but rather with the Legislature, which he says is an open process.

"This is the people's business, done by the people's house through the wonderfully untidy, but open for all to see, business of appropriations," Brownback said.

The idea of transparency in the Kansas Statehouse is a joke. Republican senators largely rejected a move by Democrats to close a loophole in the Kansas Open Meetings Act that allows party caucuses to meet behind closed doors. True, appropriation votes might happen in public meetings, but it's a safe bet that nose counting and deals get struck outside of the public's view.

An order to increase funding could put Brownback in an awkward position. His tax cuts have the state spending down its savings over the next several years as revenue declines won't keep up with spending proposals. A Kansas Legislative Research Department projects that the state's $700 million fund balance from fiscal year 2014 will run out by fiscal year 2018 under current budget patterns. Former Kansas budget director Duane Goossen, writing for the Kansas Health Institute, says difficult times loom on the horizon.

"Even with generous revenue and conservative spending assumptions, the KLRD projection indicates that the state's revenue stream does not support current spending patterns - let alone any new investments," Goossen wrote in a January 24 report. "The state cannot allow the bank balance to fall below zero, which means hard decisions are ahead."

That's without accounting for a possible order to increase education spending.

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