Kansas justices express doubt about school funding hike

Posted at 11:13 AM, May 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-22 18:45:17-04

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Four of the Kansas Supreme Court's seven justices expressed skepticism Tuesday that the Legislature and governor raised school funding sufficiently in the short term to comply with a constitutional requirement to provide a suitable education for every child.

The court heard arguments on the plan agreed to this spring by the Republican-controlled Legislature and GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer to phase in a $548 million increase over five years, the second boost in two years. Four school districts suing the state argue that the plan still falls as much as $1.5 billion short of being adequate under the state constitution.

The first justice who expressed doubt about the new spending hike was Justice Dan Biles, who said the state would wait until "five years from now" to fund what would be adequate this year. Justice Lee Johnson later echoed that sentiment.

Justices Eric Rosen and Marla Luckert suggested that legislators settled on what they wanted to spend on schools rather than what they needed to spend to fulfill their duty under the state constitution.

"There's a lot of frustration here," Rosen told Crouse. "If this isn't a kind of a deja vu, 'we have all been here before' moment, I don't know what is."

Kansas has been in and out of lawsuits over education funding. The arguments Tuesday were in a lawsuit filed by four school districts in 2010, when this year's high school graduates were fifth-graders. The Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings, pushing lawmakers to boost funding, and justices have not been shy in past hearings about expressing their skepticism that lawmakers were doing enough.

Toby Crouse, the state's solicitor general, asked the court to declare that the Legislature complied with the court's October order to boost overall spending on public schools.

"It is a fulsome funding system that is going into place," Crouse told the court. "This is a significant input of additional money."

Colyer and legislators have worried that if the court isn't satisfied, it will declare that the state cannot distribute its education dollars through an unconstitutional funding formula, which effectively would keep schools closed until legislators approve a fix.

The court threatened to do just that in 2016 to get lawmakers to increase aid to poor school districts. But Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican and chairman of a special House committee on school funding, said he would be shocked if the court went that far this time.

"You cannot argue that we did not put in a substantial amount of money and school districts won't benefit," Patton said.

But the districts' attorneys note that a study commissioned by legislators this year said improving schools could cost as much as $2 billion more per year, depending on the state's ambitions for improving standardized test scores and graduation rates.

"What the Legislature has come up with is a plan that falls way short," Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the four districts, said in an interview before arguments began.

Following the hearing on Tuesday, KCK Public Schools Superintendent Cynthia Lane hoped the justices would see the need for more funding for schools.

“We need to think what’s the adequate amount of funding in 2018 moving forward,” she explained. “We want our students to have the resources they need in order to prosper and this case is all about that.”

With the school funding debate dragging on for years in Kansas, Lane said she was encouraged seeing the justices skeptical of the state’s plan on Tuesday.

“It appears that even the state knows that more money is necessary to fund schools,” she explained. “I’m hopeful that they turn around a decision very quickly so that our legislative body can do what they need to do.”

The court promised to rule by June 30.