TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) – A month after Kansas lawmakers rolled back Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts to help fund public education, the Kansas Supreme Court met Tuesday morning to determine if it was enough to meet every student’s needs.
Justices heard oral arguments from state attorneys and lawyers for four school districts suing the state over adequate school funding. In a legal battle that began in 2010, both sides squared off on the question of equitable spending and whether recent legislation is constitutional.
Senate Bill 19 increases school funding by $195 million for the current year and $290 million in 2017-2018. The school districts are asking for an increase of $567 million this year and $823 million in 2018. But the heart of the funding dispute is whether money is equitably spread to rich and poor school districts.
The state uses the Rose standards, a set of educational achievement standards, to determine if students are receiving an acceptable level of education. About 25 percent of Kansas students score below grade level on math and reading tests, including more than 50 percent of black students and a third of Hispanic students. In March, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that state education funding was unconstitutionally low, pointing to the test scores.
The ruling was a massive blow to Brownback, whose fiscal policies of low taxes clashed with increasing education expenses. The idea of “trickle-down” economics in Kansas died when the Legislature overturned Brownback’s veto on a bill that reversed tax cuts for businesses and top-income earners. Even with the new revenue coming in, the justices expressed concern the increases are not adequate.
Jeff King, legislative adviser and former state senator, and Kansas Solicitor General Stephen McAllister faced intense scrutiny by skeptical justices regarding SB 19.
Justice Lee Johnson interrupted McAllister during his argument that the new formula would spend more money on funding schools. Johnson noted the increase barely covers inflation since the Legislature has frozen education spending since 2015.
“It seems to me unfair to say that this is an increase in funding because really all the Legislature is doing is replacing some of the money it took out of the system over the last few years,” Johnson said.
King justified the Legislature’s funding model, saying that it was largely based on information provided by the Kansas Board of Education. McAllister said the model requires time to determine if it works.
Alan Rupe, attorney for the school districts, noted the state already had time to fix the funding model, something reiterated by Chief Justice Lawton Nuss in his open criticism of the Legislature.
“I just wonder if the plaintiffs have a point, and that is you’re asking us to give another two or three years for things to play out when this lawsuit was filed in 2010,” Nuss said.
Lawmakers have had a hard time paying for state expenses in recent years, taking money out of the highway department, higher education and even halting payments to the state employee retirement fund. Those factors haven’t been lost on teachers employed by the state.
Mark Desetti, spokesman for teachers’ union Kansas National Education Association, said the cuts are also affecting the state’s ability to attract and retain teachers.
“Teacher salaries in Kansas have been relatively flat for many years now,” Desetti said. “About half of new teachers in Kansas quit within five years. The teachers are still paying into (the retirement fund), but the state doesn’t contribute anything.”
If the Supreme Court finds the new funding model unconstitutional, lawmakers may have to convene in a special session this fall to find more money in a budget already stretched to its limit. Trying to come up with more funding concerns state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, chair of the Senate’s education committee and member of its select education funding committee.
“When it comes to increasing the funding, there’s only two ways,” Baumgardner said. “We can make across-the-board cuts and cut funding to state hospitals, higher education and other public programs that are already hurting. The other way is to raise taxes after we already passed the largest tax increase in Kansas history, forcing difficult hardships on many Kansans.”
Baumgardner, who voted against the June tax increase, said it’s doubtful the Legislature will raise taxes again if the court rules against the state. Instead, lawmakers would look at cuts to other programs in order to afford the possible increase.
The justices are expected to rule sometime in August.