Chris Green

Understanding K-12 education and the Kansas Supreme Court ruling from a leadership perspective

In March, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state’s K-12 school funding was constitutionally inadequate and gave the Legislature until June 30 to fix the problem.

Q: What’s the ruling about?

A: The case was brought by a coalition of school districts. The Kansas Supreme Court decided that too many students are falling short of meeting educational standards because public education is financed inadequately. In the aftermath of state funding reductions that began in 2009, lower percentages of students are performing above minimum levels of proficiency in subjects such as math and reading. About a quarter of the state’s students are failing to meet standards in math or reading. But certain populations of students – African-Americans, Hispanics, English-language learners, the disabled – are faring even worse.

Q: What have Kansas schools been spending? Hasn’t it gone up?

A: Kansas public schools are spending more per student than they were a decade ago, according to the state Department of Education. But if you factor in inflation, that money doesn’t go as far as it used to. The chart below shows how schools are able to buy less per student even with that spending at a 10-year high in current dollars.

Spending More, But Buying Less

Kansas public schools are spending more per student than they were a decade ago, but that money does not go as far as it once did if you factor in inflation.

Q: What happens now?

A: The Legislature must pass legislation that makes school funding adequate by June 30. Although the court did not specify
the dollars necessary to make that happen,various reports suggest a range of $500 million to $800 million could be required.

But some lawmakers say it’s more important to provide additional aid to go to the students who need the most help, rather than simply increase funding.

Furthermore, lawmakers are already dealing with significant budget shortfalls that must be remedied, meaning they will have to increase tax revenues or make significant cuts elsewhere in the budget to increase any spending. K-12 education is already the state’s largest expenditure, consuming about half of its operations budget, limiting the areas that might be cut.

For a bill to become law, at least 63 House members and at least 21 Senate members must vote in favor of it, and the governor must also sign the legislation. If the governor rejects a bill, his veto can be overridden by votes of 84 in the House and 27 in the Senate.

A bill will have to be passed by forming a majority coalition around a particular proposal. Although Republicans dominate both chambers of the Legislature, there are distinct factions within their caucuses.

Conservatives tend to be skeptical of increased taxes and government spending, while moderate Republicans, more amenable to passing increased funding, have at times teamed with Democrats to pass legislation. But this issue transcends partisan divides. Lawmakers may vote differently based on whether they represent urban, rural or suburban areas.   

For a bill to become law, at least 63 House members and at least 21 Senate members must vote in favor of it, and the governor must also sign the legislation. If the governor rejects a bill, his veto can be overridden by votes of 84 in the House and 27 in the Senate.

Q: What are the big leadership issues?

A: In years past, particularly in 2005 and 2016, lawmakers have found ways to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court’s rulings related to school funding. However, they have never had to respond to a school finance ruling while also dealing with a budget crisis. Barring a miracle, resolving this situation will require difficult decisions that either significantly increase available tax revenues, reduce/shift spending in other areas of the budget to education or shift spending within K-12 education to better assist struggling students.

Furthermore, there are great divides related to the kinds of taxes that legislators think Kansans should be paying. Historic income tax cuts signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback have been followed by several difficult budget years. Earlier this year, the Legislature advanced proposals to reverse those breaks and raise income taxes to balance the budget, but they were vetoed by the governor. The governor and his allies are protective of those tax cuts because he thinks they are important to economic growth. (Critics counter that the state’s growth has lagged the nation’s.) Opponents of greater income taxes tend to favor raising revenue from non-income tax sources, such as increasing alcohol and tobacco taxes.

Policymakers also differ on ways to distribute aid. For decades, Kansas had a school funding formula that distributed aid equally across districts based on their enrollments and classifications of students. But lawmakers scrapped that plan in 2015 in favor of block grants to districts that didn’t fluctuate based on enrollment or explicitly provide extra funding for certain types of students. But the court declared that system inadequate. One of the key debates will be over whether the state should return to something close to the old formula or invent something new in terms of funding approaches and requirements for schools.

Another point of contention is whether all the money should be directed solely at public schools, or whether lawmakers should create some sort of voucher system that allows parents and students to purchase educational services from private institutions. Public education advocates roundly reject the idea of vouchers. They question their effectiveness and are concerned they could weaken public schools and their abilities to educate struggling or needy students, while limited-government conservatives support them as a way to give parents more choice and make public education more accountable.

Q: I’m not a legislator. What can I do as an individual related to this civic challenge?

A: Definitely keep apprised of the issue by following media reports or news from your legislator. Make your views and values known to those who represent you at the state and local school board level (a series of suggestions for how to do that well appears later in this issue). Ask lots of questions. Be engaged.

You should also encourage your legislators to exercise leadership by listening and considering other views and working across factions. Ask them to hold to purpose. (It’s not going to be easy.) Let them know that this is a situation where you care about making progress.

Your own leadership and civic engagement matters, too. Get involved with your schools locally in some way. You should be willing to talk with others about the issue and be curious about how it affects you, your family and the state as a whole. Try to see the situation from points of view other than your own. Manage yourself. Don’t call names or cast aspersions, but do stand up for your views, values and interests in productive, reasonable ways. And if you don’t know what you stand for, maybe you should begin trying to figure that out.

Government, even at the state level, can often seem confusing and distant, and this issue can be as confounding as any. But your leadership and engagement does matter. Maybe not as much as you’d like it to. But it does matter. And exercising leadership and engaging civically should be less about getting your way and more about using your voice to join with others in a process that shapes your community and state.

Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll look back at this period of time as a key moment in the history of the state.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit

Recent Stories

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.