Kansas Supreme Court Usurps Legislature’s Authority
In most states, elected officials, usually state legislators, are responsible for assessing what education funding in the state should be and will be. Recently, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that in fact, the judicial branch has jurisdiction over this crucial area of the budget. Although the Court didn’t answer the broad question of what constitutes the “adequate school funding” requirement in the Kansas State Constitution, it did say that lawmakers must fund schools equally. And while this ruling will have some impact on present school funding formulas, the Court made sure to clarify that it has jurisdiction over what counts as “adequate school funding.”
The question of “What is adequate school funding?” will most likely be decided by the Court in a more specific way at some point in the future.
Judges in state courts across the country have been using their position to second guess the decisions of elected state legislators and force them to appropriate more for educational spending. This has sometimes resulted in unforeseen budget deficits or even tax increases to sufficiently meet the spending requirements set by state courts. A 2007 study from Chris Atkins of the Tax Foundation notes that from 1977 to 2007 a total of 27 states have been forced to increase education spending beyond what they had originally appropriated; resulting in an additional expenditure of $34 billion total (in 2004 dollars). Of those 27 states, 9 states explicitly raised taxes, in some cases without even a public or legislative vote, to pay for the court mandated spending.
Kansas has faced this problem before. In 2005 the State Supreme Court ordered Kansas to spend more on education. Kansas lawmakers complied, but now the Court is again ordering more spending. Kansas already spends more than 50 percent of its budget on K-12 education, and if this ruling stands, it will be forced to spend 62 percent of its budget on education. All of this is despite the fact that when measured against regional per-pupil spending, Kansas is funding education quite well.
Additionally, new evidence from the Cato Institute shows that educational outcomes are not even related to education funding in any significant way. The study shows that if the goal is to actually teach kids and achieve educational outcomes, more than exclusively school funding must be considered in the education process.
The Kansas Supreme Court’s involvement in matters of budget appropriations flies the face of the theory of separation of powers. Moreover, it could put at risk the state’s monumental tax reform that lowered the state income tax from 6.45 percent to 4.9 percent, with plans set to lower it even further and possibly phase it out completely in the coming years. The tax reforms have already produced the desired economic growth, with much more to come.
As Governor Brownback, the Kansas Legislature, and the voters who put them there push for limited government and lower taxes, the State Supreme Court could attempt to force the opposite. Ultimately, this appropriations battle hinges on the question of authority and what “adequate school funding” is. Which branch of the Kansas state government has the final word on how the state’s taxes and revenues are spent? Although this particular question is unique to Kansas, the final outcome of the controversy could have far-reaching implications for education funding across the states.