A panel of state judges ruled Friday that funding of Kansas schools doesn't pass constitutional muster, suggesting a price tag that could approach $500 million more for the state.
In their 250-page opinion, the Shawnee County District Court judges called the education cuts "an obvious and continuing pattern of disregard of constitutional funding."
Parents and school districts had argued the state hasn't lived up to its promises to increase school funding under a 2005 order by the Kansas Supreme Court. The result, they argued, damaged student achievement.
"It's a great victory for all of the kids of Kansas," said Wichita lawyer Alan Rupe, who represented a coalition of 54 Kansas school districts in the lawsuit. "This opinion underscores what that commitment should be for the future."
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt vowed to appeal to the state Supreme Court, while other critics derided the ruling as an overreach by the court.
Friday's ruling, the Republican Schmidt said, holds "enormous consequences for the state of Kansas."
The judges said the state needs to bring annual state base aid to the legally required level of $4,492 per student, up from the current level of $3,838.
Kansas added hundreds of millions to school funding following the state Supreme Court ruling in 2005. Yet state aid plummeted in recent years as the Legislature grappled with the fallout from the recession.
In 2008, base state aid per pupil rose to $4,400, but dropped to $3,780 by 2011.
The Legislature added $40 million last year to the roughly $3 billion it doles out to support local schools. That still left state aid well below the $4,492 required by law. Rupe said Friday's ruling could cost the state $500 million more a year.
Brownback said the ruling was disappointing, but expected, given the 2005 court decision.
"The courts are drastically increasing the property tax burden on every Kansan," Brownback said in a statement. "The Kansas Legislature, not the courts, has the power of the purse."
The court ordered the state to increase school funding by the start of fiscal year 2014, which is July 1. It was unclear if the state could postpone that during the appeal to spare the Legislature from dealing with the issue immediately. Lawmakers already face a revenue shortfall brought on by income tax cuts.
Plaintiffs in the case include the Kansas City, Kan., School District. While pleased by the ruling, district officials said it's now up to the Legislature to act.
"The court on quite a few occasions -- including again now -- has said the state of Kansas has a constitutional obligation to fund schools adequately," said David A. Smith, chief of staff for the Kansas City, Kan., School District. "It is hard to argue that we don't know any more what the right thing is to do."
The judges had harsh words for Brownback's tax cuts, dismissing the state's argument that a large infusion of money for schools would have disastrous effects on the Kansas economy and taxpayers.
Their ruling said the income tax cuts -- unlike the effects of the recession -- inflict a "homespun" and "self-inflicted" wound.
"It appears to us that the only certain result from the tax cut will be a further reduction of existing resources available," the judges wrote. "While the Legislature has said that educational funding is a priority, the passage of the tax-cut bill suggests otherwise."
Democrats pounced on that part of the judge's ruling, without addressing cuts made under Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson.
"The court acknowledges that Governor Brownback's tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations directly conflict with our constitutional obligation to fund public schools," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, questioned the court's authority to force the state to spend money.
Rep. Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican, characterized the ruling on Facebook as a "judicial effort to seize control of the appropriation power from the legislative branch."
"In our system of government it is the people, not the Legislature or the courts, who are ultimately sovereign," Kinzer wrote.
He suggested amending the state constitution "to rein in this judicial excess."
Earlier this year, Brownback took steps to rewrite the school finance formula ahead of the ongoing court case. However, the plan never got much traction in the Legislature and it remains to be seen how much debate that will get in this year's legislative session.
Brownback has argued that he has increased money for schools, noting that he has put more money into areas that are not traditionally calculated as part of classroom spending -- teacher pensions, special education and debt payments on school construction projects.
The governor has complained, for instance, that because the state puts money into teacher pensions, that should be considered part of the state money going into education.
Rupe contends that money doesn't filter down to the students.
"You have to look at the money that goes to the classroom," he said, "and teacher retirement isn't part of that formula."