South Carolina, Kansas Fight School Finance Rulings

Last Updated: January 28, 2015

This article appeared in the January 2015 Rural Policy Matters.

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Most states fight back when courts order them to fix their school finance systems. Education is one of the largest budget items in most states and it is often one of the most contentious.

South Carolina and Kansas are no exception. Long-running court battles in both states reached important turning points this month. RPM provides the overview.

South Carolina ruling stands, state seeks alternatives

In late December, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and state lawmakers asked the State Supreme Court to rehear a long-running school finance lawsuit. The Court had ruled in November that the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide a “minimally adequate” education.

In their request to have the case re-heard, Haley and lawmakers argued that the decision did not take into account recent state initiatives or an additional $180 million in new funding. On January 23rd the Court rejected the state’s request.

The November Supreme Court decision stands as the final ruling in a case that was filed more than twenty years ago by a group of rural school districts. The Court ordered the state to fix the system but did not specify a remedy. (See prior RPM coverage of the South Carolina case here.)

Meanwhile, lawmakers and pundits are pitching ideas for addressing needs in rural school districts, including predictable calls for consolidation and online schools. Several legislators have established task forces to study various options.

Haley has also presented ideas as part of her budget request to the legislature. Many of Haley’s proposals are intended to get and keep teachers in eligible high-poverty, low-wealth rural districts. They include subsidized tuition for college students; student loan assistance; stipends to train and pay veteran teachers in eligible districts to become mentors; pay bumps for teachers with between five and ten years of experience who work in eligible districts; and expansion of the state’s reading coach program. Haley proposes paying for the new programs by phasing out state pay bonuses for teachers who earn National Board Certification.

In addition, Haley has proposed an increase of about $80 per student made possible by moving big pieces of education funding out of the state’s lottery and distributing it through the Education Finance Act.

Kansas asks for clarity

In December a Kansas District Court panel found the state’s school funding system inadequate and in violation of constitutional requirements. Earlier this year, the State Supreme Court had found the system in violation of constitutional equity standards and sent the adequacy question back to the lower court. Last month’s ruling settles the adeqaucy question and underscores the state’s requirement to fund schools equitably and adequately.

State Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced this week that the state had filed a motion asking for a clearer explanation from the court on whether the state’s system of funding is itself unconstitutional or whether the state is failing to put enough money into that system.

Kansas made deep cuts in state education spending during the recession and also implemented extensive tax cuts. Republican lawmakers justified the tax cuts with the promise that they would provide enough economic stimulus to more than make up for the lost revenue. But economic gains have fallen short of predictions.

Some lawmakers have suggested they may re-write the entire school finance law in response to the court ruling, in part to preserve and extend tax cuts.

(See prior RPM coverage of the Kansas case here.)

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Read more from the January 2015 Rural Policy Matters.