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As long school funding lawsuit ends in Kansas, some fear lawmakers will backslide on education goals

Posted at 1:12 PM, Feb 08, 2024

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas' highest court has closed out a nearly 13-year-old lawsuit that repeatedly forced the Republican-controlled Legislature to boost funding for public schools, and Democrats predicted Wednesday that GOP colleagues soon would be trying to backslide on lawmakers' promises.

The state Supreme Court's brief order Tuesday shutting down the suit said legislators have fulfilled promises of annual increases in aid to the state's 286 local school districts as outlined in a 2019 law. The state expects to provide $4.9 billion in aid to those districts during the current school year — 39% more than the $3.5 billion for the 2013-14 school district — and state law dictates future increases to keep up with inflation.

But closing the case gives the Legislature more leeway on school funding issues in the short term. Educators who feel legislators aren't providing enough money or distributing it fairly enough were able to take their complaints directly to the state Supreme Court while the case was open.

Kansas has been in and out of lawsuits over public schools for 35 years, and legislators backtracked on their promises after two earlier rounds of litigation when the state economy faltered and the budget became tight. In recent years, conservative Republicans have pushed to set aside state education dollars for parents so that they can pay for private schooling for their children.

“If history tells us anything, I predict it’ll take all of five seconds for the other side to exploit this trust from the court,” the top Democrat in the Kansas House, Rep. Vic Miller, said in an emailed statement.

The court’s order Tuesday said that one justice, Eric Rosen, would have kept the case open given “the legislative history of school funding.” Leah Fliter, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said many local school board members would be more comfortable if the Supreme Court had opted to keep the case open for a few more years.

The court's majority also rejected a request from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to file a “friend of the court” brief on whether the case should be closed. She is not a party to the lawsuit. . Now they would have to file a new lawsuit, if they chose to do so, which would take at least several years to resolve.

In her brief, Kelly argued that lawmakers had “achieved the bare minimum” and that “compliance once is not sufficient."

After the court acted Tuesday, Kelly said in a statement: "The Legislature must not take this ruling as license to cut funding from our public schools and crush an entire generation of Kansas students."

Top Republicans rejected the idea that they're ready to backtrack on funding. House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said lawmakers have made education a priority “by fully funding schools.”

State Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Kansas City-area Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said: “We as a Legislature have kept our word.”

The Supreme Court closed the lawsuit at the request of state Attorney General Kris Kobach. A conservative Republican, Kobach previously has argued that the court's orders on education funding improperly encroached on the Legislature's power to make those decisions under the state constitution.

Kobach said Wednesday that that the state constitution anticipates that the Legislature will decide spending issues, with the Supreme Court stepping in only over “a constitutional violation.”

“The constitution doesn’t contemplate that the court is involved at all stages, and this just brings us back to our normal constitutional framework,” Kobach said of Tuesday's decision.

The Supreme Court closed a previous lawsuit in 2006 based on laws promising increased spending on schools, but within a few years, educators said lawmakers were failing in their duty under the state constitution to provide an adequate education for every K-12 student.

Four school districts sued the state in 2010, and the Supreme Court issued seven rulings from 2010 to 2019. The first six told lawmakers that they needed to increase spending or distribute the money more fairly or both.

Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the four districts, said they will remain “watchful” with the case closed.

“Everybody remains optimistic,” he said.