Kansas ruling could hold implications for Missouri

Thursday, June 9, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling declaring insufficient the Kansas Legislature's efforts to improve public school funding could offer some indications as to how a similar Missouri case will unfold, according to the attorney for a group of Missouri school districts.

A key Missouri senator, however, says the Kansas court's order that lawmakers must come up with an additional $143 million in education spending by July 1 should serve as a warning to Missourians and is the perfect argument in favor of amending the Missouri Constitution to strip state courts of authority over such matters.

The Committee for Educational Equality, the larger of two groups claiming that Missouri's education funding distribution formula is unconstitutional, announced Tuesday that it will continue its lawsuit against the state, even though the Missouri Legislature approved a new formula last month. Including another group, more than 300 school districts are involved in the case.

Committee for Educational Equality attorney Alex Bartlett of Jefferson City said the core arguments in the Missouri case -- that the state doesn't provide enough money to public schools and unfairly distributes what it does -- are the same as in the Kansas case.

"This holds lessons for us in Missouri," Bartlett said.

After the Kansas Supreme Court declared that state's education funding system unconstitutional in January, it delayed mandating a remedy to give the Kansas Legislature an opportunity to craft it own. Although Kansas lawmakers quickly enacted a revised funding mechanism, the state's high court ruled Friday that the new plan still falls substantially short of passing constitutional muster.

"As of this time, the legislature has failed to provide suitable funding for a constitutionally adequate education," the court said in its unanimous, unsigned ruling.

Special session planned

The Kansas Legislature will convene in a special legislative session on June 22 to try to comply with the court's order to find another $143 million for education on top of the $142 million increase it already approved for the 2005-2006 school year.

The court said it will consider ordering the legislature to allocate an additional $568 million for education for the 2006-2007 school year. The court based the total funding increase on a 2001 study by the consulting firm Augenblick & Myers of Denver.

"Clearly, the legislature's obligation will not end there; the costs of education continue to change and constant monitoring and funding adjustments are necessary," the court said.

Augenblick & Myers likely will also be a player in the Missouri case. In a 2003 study commissioned by the Committee for Educational Equality, the firm concluded that Missouri needed to immediately boost state education spending by $913 million based on 2001-2002 school year levels in order to achieve adequate funding.

The new formula approved by Missouri lawmakers calls for an estimated $900 million funding increase, but it would be spread over seven years. Many school administrators say the increase merely reflects natural growth in education spending and isn't a true strengthening of the state's financial commitment to local schools.

Missouri Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said the Kansas court is violating the separation of powers doctrine by dictating funding decisions that rightly belong to the legislative branch.

"It is frightening to me that an unelected judiciary would assume the appropriations power, and that is exactly what the Kansas Supreme Court has done," Bartle said.

Worried that Missouri courts might follow suit, Bartle and two other Senate leaders plan to pursue a proposed constitutional amendment stating that the judiciary has no role in education funding decisions. If it clears the legislature next year, the proposal would be subject to voter ratification no later than November 2006.

The Committee for Educational Equality lawsuit, which is pending in Cole County Circuit Court, likely will not go to trial until next year.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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