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Kansas high court says education funding is adequate but refuses to close lawsuit

Posted at 6:17 AM, Jun 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-14 18:50:57-04

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas' highest court declared Friday that the state finally is spending enough money on its public schools under a new education funding law but refused to end a lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago because it wants to monitor future funding by the Legislature.

The state Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision signing off on a law enacted in April that will boost the state's education funding by roughly $90 million a year. It was the high court's seventh ruling in less than six years in a lawsuit filed by four local school districts in 2010.

Kansas spends more than $4 billion a year on its public schools — about $1 billion more than it did during the 2013-14 school year — because of the court's decisions. Increases are promised through the 2022-23 school year, and the new law was designed to ratchet up spending to account for inflation, something the court ruled last year was necessary.

"The State has substantially complied with our mandate," the court said in its unsigned opinion.

The decision not to close the case means the Supreme Court retains a hammer over the governor and legislators. If the districts believe that the state has broken its promises, they can return to the high court for another order, instead of being forced to file a new lawsuit and have a lower-court trial first. Alan Rupe, the districts' lead attorney, promised to move quickly if legislators "start backing up on what they promised."

The districts had argued that in adjusting spending for inflation, state officials botched the math and needed to provide ever-larger boosts through 2022-23. Rupe said he is disappointed that "we lost the argument," but pointed to the spending increases lawmakers were forced to approve in recent years.

"We can't complain," Rupe said. "Holy cow, when you look at everything that's been accomplished, it is absolutely a significant achievement."

David Smith, a spokesman for the Shawnee Mission School District, said that it would take districts some time to "catch back up, but we will definitely see a difference."

"Over the last 17 years, for 14 of those years funding was inadequate," Smith said. "That means we have a lot of work to do to make up for what we didn’t have."

Brian Hogsett, who serves on the Kansas PTA Board of Managers and also has children in the Shawnee Mission School District, said he was disappointed it took this long for the funding issue to be resolved.

"As a parent, having to answer a survey from the school district to make a decision to clean classrooms overnight or other programs to remain in place was a very frustrating process," he said.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who took office in January, had championed the new law as a way to potentially end the lawsuit. It passed the Republican-controlled Legislature with bipartisan support.

Kelly said the latest ruling made Friday "a great day for Kansas and for our kids," and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, said the lawsuit is behind the state "as long as the Legislature and governor fulfill the promises they have made."

Other Republicans were less enthusiastic. Some, particularly conservatives, have questioned whether the state can sustain the new spending in the future without raising taxes or cutting state spending elsewhere.

"Our kids and our schools deserve better than an empty promise," said House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Kansas City-area Republican.

Kansas has been in and out of school funding lawsuits for several decades. The state constitution says lawmakers "shall make suitable provision for finance" of the state's "educational interests." The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the language requires legislators to provide enough money and distribute the dollars fairly enough to finance a suitable education for every child.

In a previous lawsuit, the Supreme Court issued rulings in 2005 and 2006 that forced the Legislature to approve big increases in education funding. The court closed that earlier case, and the state backtracked after the Great Recession of 2007-08, prompting the lawsuit in 2010.

That history seemed to be on the mind of Justice Dan Biles during a May hearing on this year's law. Biles, a former State Board of Education attorney, told the state's solicitor general that the Legislature had "reneged" on past funding promises and, "I don't have a lot of sympathy for the idea of dismissing this lawsuit."

In its unsigned opinion Friday, the court said, "We retain jurisdiction to ensure continued implementation of the scheduled funding."

School funding decisions have made the Supreme Court a political issue, with conservative Republicans arguing that the justices have overstepped their authority and infringed on the Legislature's power to make spending decisions.

That long-standing discontent bolstered unsuccessful campaigns by conservatives in 2014 and 2016 to remove six of the seven justices. Justices face a statewide, yes-or-no vote on whether they remain on the bench every six years after being appointed by the governor.

Four of the targeted justices were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and the other two, by moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves. The seventh justice was appointed by conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

The court's decision Friday isn't likely to end the debate over reigning in the court's power by amending the state constitution.

"It's time for a thoughtful conversation about whether this process we have witnessed over the past decade is really how Kansans want school finance decisions to be made," Schmidt said.