School Funding Formulas Under Fiscal Pressure

With stimulus dollars spent and state reserve funds dry school districts are running out of palatable options for meeting current spending levels in school budgets. Some Kansas school districts are suing the state on the grounds that reduced state funding violates the constitutional obligation to provide “adequate” funding for K-12 public schools.

Such litigation is part of the terrain in American public school policy. There have been twenty Abbott Decisions in New Jersey in order to ensure that students in low-income districts receive a constitutionally-specified “thorough and efficient education.” The court in New Jersey interpreted this to mean that low-income districts must receive sufficient state aid to equalize per-pupil spending with the highest-spending district in the state.

But spending “equity” arguments have not proven successful in many states. School advocates have turned to arguing for “adequacy”. The result is that school districts have grown less dependent on direct financing through property taxes and more dependent on state aid. Fiscal illusion reigns in school budgets. The crisis in state budgets means the aid-dependency of school districts is being tested.

The Kansas state legislature will be at the mercy of the courts which may bind the state to award more money to schools. It’s not a good way to make appropriations or school policy. And it is something that Sen. Sam Brownback may be willing to test in the U.S. Supreme Court.