TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas' new Democratic governor promised on the campaign trail to end a protracted lawsuit over education funding by increasing state spending on public schools, and the Republican-led Legislature approved her proposal Thursday evening.
It may not be enough.
An attorney for the local school districts suing the state certainly doesn't think so, and his clients have won before the Kansas Supreme Court repeatedly. Even some legislators who backed Gov. Laura Kelly's plan for an increase of roughly $90 million a year think they'll be discussing another Supreme Court order to boost funding again next year. Others are hopeful the court will sign off, but no one is dead certain.
"Worst-case scenario, all it does is buy us another year," said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who serves on a House education funding committee. "Best-case scenario is the court says, 'That's a good faith effort and we'll monitor the case over the next few years.'"
The House voted 76-47 to approve a bill containing Kelly's funding proposal, and the Senate approved it on a 31-8 vote. The measure ties the new money to several education policy changes favored by GOP lawmakers, including a requirement for a new one-page online performance report on each public school.
Kelly said the bill's passage is "an important step" toward addressing students' needs, supporting teachers and "fully funding our schools." It's also her biggest legislative victory since taking office in January after campaigning last year as a bipartisan problem-solver.
"By investing in our local schools, we can ensure that all Kansas children — no matter who they are or where they live — have the opportunity to succeed," Kelly said in a statement after the bill cleared the Legislature.
The four school districts sued Kansas in 2010, and the state Supreme Court has issued six rulings directing lawmakers to increase the state's spending in a little more than five years, so that aid to public schools now tops $4 billion a year. The court said in an 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 court gave the state's attorneys until April 15 to file a written report on lawmakers' response. The key legal question is whether the state is spending enough money for lawmakers to meet an obligation under the Kansas Constitution to finance a suitable education for every child.
The school districts' attorneys also must file their own assessment April 15. John Robb, one of their attorneys, said Thursday evening that the districts will argue that the state's funding isn't adequate after the 2019-2020 school year.
The districts argue that accounting for inflation is a straightforward math problem that 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.
"I think the court will recognize that they didn't reach the target," Robb said. "We think the court is going to say, 'The math doesn't work.'"
Past Supreme Court rulings came with an implied threat that the justices could shut down schools if legislators did not comply. But Robb said that's unlikely now, because the 2019-20 school year is adequately covered.
Some Republicans, particularly conservatives, question whether the state will be able to sustain even Kelly's new spending without a future tax increase. GOP leaders also pushed a tax relief bill designed to prevent individuals and businesses from paying more in state income taxes because of changes in federal tax laws at the end of 2017, which the governor vetoed.
Most Senate Republicans lined up behind Kelly's plan last month after the school districts suing the state initially supported it, then withdrew their endorsement and called for higher spending after the 2019-20 school year. House GOP leaders wanted to earmark much of the new money to programs for at-risk students but relented Wednesday when it became clear senators would not budge in negotiations.
Backers of the bill hope a show of bipartisan support will persuade the Supreme Court to find Kelly's plan acceptable.
"For now, what we have before us is what I believe to be our best response for the courts," said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Kansas City-area Republican and the chairwoman of a school funding committee.