Kansas faces questions about school funding law before court

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Posted at 11:14 AM, May 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-09 15:26:15-04

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas Supreme Court that has repeatedly forced state legislators to increase spending on public schools directed tough questions Thursday to an attorney attacking a new funding law as inadequate, with one justice wondering when the protracted legal battle would be "crossing the finish line."

The court had pointed questions for both the state's attorney and a lawyer for four school districts suing the state as the justices reviewed the new law, which increases education funding by roughly $90 million a year. But in hearings over the past six years, the justices have directed their toughest questions at the state's lawyer.

The tone Thursday was different enough that the state's Republican attorney general was encouraged after watching the arguments.

Comments from two justices who have pushed lawmakers to boost spending suggested that they want to find a way to end the lawsuit and remove the high court from annual school funding debates. The four districts sued the state in 2010, and the court has promised its next ruling before July.

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss pointed to criticism that the court has acted as a "super-Legislature."

Justice Eric Rosen noted that for most of his 14 years on the court, the state has been in litigation over whether it is spending enough money on schools and distributing it fairly enough to satisfy the Kansas Constitution.

"Is there ever crossing the finish line in these types of cases?" Rosen asked Alan Rupe, the attorney for the school districts. "... Is this just indefinite?"

When Rupe answered, "I don't think so," Rosen shot back, "Well, tell me why ... Where does this ever end?"

The new school funding law contains Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's plan for addressing a Supreme Court order last year that said education funding still wasn't sufficient to finance a suitable education for every child, as the state constitution requires. The measure passed the Republican-led Legislature with bipartisan support and was based on recommendations from the GOP-controlled State Board of Education.

State officials hoped the broad support for the new law would persuade the Supreme Court to accept it. State Solicitor General Toby Crouse even suggested that the justices should dismiss the lawsuit.

That led to the sharpest exchange between Crouse and the court, with Justice Dan Biles, a former state school board attorney. The four districts sued after the state backtracked on past funding promises following the Great Recession. Biles said the Legislature "reneged."

He told Crouse: "I've got to tell you, I don't have a lot of sympathy for the idea of dismissing this lawsuit."

The Supreme Court has issued six rulings directing lawmakers to increase the state's spending on public schools in a little more than five years, so that aid to public schools tops $4 billion a year — about $1 billion more than it did for the 2013-14 school year. The court said in its order last year that a 2018 law promising additional funding increases into the future wasn't sufficient because it hadn't accounted for inflation.

The four school districts argue that the state botched what was a straightforward math problem of accounting for inflation. They contend it requires increasingly larger amounts of money each year through the 2022-23 school year. Under their calculations, the increase for that year would be about $360 million instead of the roughly $90 million under Kelly's proposal.

"They're not reaching the target," Rupe said.

Four justices repeatedly questioned Crouse about the state's math, and he repeatedly said officials were following the court's guidance in its opinion last year. But in questioning Rupe, Rosen suggested that the school districts had adopted a standard of "you know it when you see it" to determine whether funding is adequate.

"I was encouraged by the tone of the court's interaction with counsel, especially the plaintiffs' (school districts") counsel, in this case," said state Attorney General Derek Schmidt.