Kansas Justices Grill State Over Tepid School Funding

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) – After Kansas commissioned a study that found Kansas schools need up to $2 billion more in funding, the Kansas Supreme Court on Tuesday pressed state lawmakers on why they only increased education funding by a fraction of that amount.

In a long-running fight between school districts and the state, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a new law that increases education spending by $548 million over five years and if it adequately funds every district.

The issue of funding comes from Gannon v. Kansas, a 2010 complaint from school districts in low-income areas that claimed that state education funding was inadequate for their districts. The court since ruled the state must increase funding, which has led to a back-and-forth between lawmakers and school districts.

“If this isn’t kind of a déjà vu we’ve all been here before moment, I don’t know what is,” Justice Eric Rosen said early in the proceedings.

After the Great Recession, legislators reneged on a promise to add approximately $500 million a year to public schools, driving the state’s constant legal battle.

In an effort to demonstrate its current funding is adequate, lawmakers commissioned a study by Texas A&M professor Lori Taylor. Instead of supporting the Legislature, however, the Taylor study found the state needs to spend as much as $2 billion to see improvements in math and reading scores and 4-year graduation rates.

In October, the court ruled education funding is inadequate, but gave lawmakers more time to come up with another plan. On Tuesday, the justices seemed doubtful of the new funding law SB 423, given that it does not take into consideration the results of the study.

“Here you all are, always battling your own experts,” Rosen said to Solicitor General Toby Crouse, who defended the state.

Crouse said the study set high goals for the state that have not been set by the court, including a 95 percent graduation rate.

Alan Rupe, an attorney for the schools, disputed the graduation rate is not attainable, adding that 76 of 286 districts in the state are already achieving it. Rupe said legislators failed to do their job to adequately fund schools.

“The constitution requires suitable funding, adequate funding. And we’re not there yet,” Rupe said.

Rupe argued the law, which raises spending by $190 million for the upcoming school year, is less than the $506 million school districts say they require and that the increase will be eaten up by inflation.

Justice Dan Biles questioned the state’s numbers, saying the adequate spending will come in five years rather than the current year.

“You’re going to hit a number you say is constitutional, but five years from now, not today,” Biles said to Crouse. “That’s why I don’t understand. You didn’t calculate a projection of what’s needed five years from now.”

Justices were also concerned that legislators might pass a law to satisfy the current lawsuit but change funding in the future, which could create new legal battles.

“What prevents you from passing that, you know, in three or four years you’re not going to do?” Justice Lee Johnson asked the state’s attorneys. “But just to get this case done with, we’re going to pass some legislation that’s going to add $2 billion into the system. And then next year, you change your mind so that the remedy is, the solution is to file another lawsuit.”

Kansas lawmakers have been trying to get around the court’s scrutiny, but without much success. An attempt to create a constitutional amendment that said only legislators can judge the adequacy of education funding died quickly in this year’s legislative session. In 2016, lawmakers held retention elections for the Supreme Court justices, only to see every judge retained by voters.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by June 30, before school districts budget for the upcoming school year. If state funding is found inadequate, the court could block the law and leave schools closed until lawmakers hold a special session to revamp it.

%d bloggers like this: