Look west on school spending

The battle over cash in Kansas provides clues for Missouri.
Monday, July 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:21 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — With Missouri facing a lawsuit challenging the state’s method of funding public schools, developments in Kansas could provide a glimpse of where this case is headed.

In both states, school officials challenged state spending, saying it did not provide fair and adequate funding for schools as the state constitutions require.

After a long court battle, the Kansas Legislature responded this spring, boosting spending for schools by more than $140 million. But the Kansas Supreme Court said that wasn’t good enough and ordered the Legislature to roughly double that amount by July.

That’s exactly the kind of decision Missouri lawmakers want to avoid.

“If you don’t get out in front on these kinds of issues, you see what can happen,” said Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, who led the effort to rewrite Missouri’s school formula this year.

The Kansas court’s ruling met resistance from some Republican legislators in that state. Lawmakers met for 11 days to try to respond before adjourning on Saturday for the Fourth of July holiday. The Kansas lawmakers are scheduled to return to the special session on Wednesday.

Some Kansas lawmakers were insisting that the court had overstepped its bounds, and the session was stymied as conservatives in the House insisted that legislators approve a constitutional amendment spelling out that only the Legislature can determine spending before any spending plan was approved.

Missouri’s lawsuit, filed more than a year ago, is still in the early stages of sharing documents among rival attorneys, and a trial isn’t likely until next year.

But Missouri lawmakers hope they have made the court battle irrelevant. This spring, the General Assembly passed a new plan for funding public schools, one that will boost spending by about $800 million a year when fully phased in for the 2012-13 school year. The state already spends about $2.5 billion on public schools.

Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Matt Blunt say they recognized the system was broken and fixed it, so the courts — if not the school districts — should defer to their solution.

Some Missouri lawmakers this year also proposed a constitutional amendment to bar courts from weighing in on school funding decisions. With a focus on rewriting the spending plan, the proposed amendment went nowhere, but supporters promise to bring it back next year — and Shields, R-St. Joseph, is among its sponsors.

While supporters of such restrictions say they are simply keeping courts from exceeding their authority, others worry that such moves, if actually adopted, would infringe on the checks and balances of a system with three branches of government.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff said courts give broad deference to the legislative executive branches, and agreed it is lawmakers’ duty to set spending.

“Who is the referee of that process? Inevitably it is the courts, because it is the courts’ duty to say what the law is,” Wolff said. “At some point, they may overstep their constitutional bounds, and the question is, do you want a judiciary that will address that?”

The proposals to limit courts’ involvement in funding decisions are only one of the parallels between the Missouri and Kansas cases.

The Kansas court’s ruling ordering the specific spending increase relied on a study by outside education consultants that found the state needed to increase its annual spending on schools by $852 million. Those same consultants have studied Missouri’s system, finding spending should increase by as much as $1.5 billion a year.

But a key difference is the Kansas Legislature requested that study. In Missouri, the review was financed by a collection of education and business groups.

Another finding Kansas’ highest court made in its ruling was that the Legislature’s response did not increase state aid enough, or quickly enough. That Missouri’s plan won’t be fully in place for several years is among the problems the school districts in the Missouri lawsuit have with the new formula. And the decision from Kansas could give them some ammunition heading into Missouri’s court fight.

“We cannot continue to ask current Kansas students to ‘be patient,’” the Kansas Supreme Court said. “The time for their education is now.”

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