With Kansas enmeshed in education funding lawsuits for nearly two decades, a skeptical state Supreme Court on Tuesday questioned whether recent changes make the distribution of dollars fairer to poor public schools.
The justices heard arguments from attorneys on a school finance law enacted by the Republican-dominated Legislature enacted earlier this year, the third in as many years. The law revised parts of the funding formula but resulted in no change in total funds for most of the state's 286 school districts.
The court in February ordered lawmakers to improve aid to poor districts and gave them until June 30 or face having schools shut down. But lawmakers faced a budget crunch that followed massive personal income tax cuts and strong political opposition to redistributing funds from wealthy districts.
The state's lawyers contend legislators made a good-faith effort to address the court's concerns. Attorney General Derek Schmidt said the justices have no reason to shut down schools.
But Justice Dan Biles, in peppering attorneys with questions, showed some impatience. The court is pondering what happens to funding for the 2016-17 school year, and Biles said the system has "operated unconstitutionally" since 2010, when four school districts filed the lawsuit before the court.
"How many years do we operate unconstitutionally before we say, you know, the music's got to stop, and we've got to stop dancing?" Biles said.
The court is expected to rule quickly. Legislators aren't scheduled to meet again this year except for a brief June 1 adjournment ceremony but could reconvene if the court rejects this year's fix.
The lawsuit pursued by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts followed up on one in 1999 that forced lawmakers to promise big increases in annual spending on public schools, which now tops $4 billion. Legislators kept their promises at first but backed off during the Great Recession.
The court's past rulings have made conservative Republicans who lead the Legislature increasingly hostile and suspicious of the justices. Six of the seven were appointed by Democratic or moderate Republican governors and only one by conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback.
The court has repeatedly said the Kansas Constitution requires lawmakers to finance a suitable education for every child.
The justices ordered an increase in aid to poor districts in 2014, and lawmakers complied. But when the price tag ballooned, GOP legislators rewrote the school funding law again to make spending more predictable. Last year's changes prompted the court's ruling in February.
Legislative leaders already have committed to writing another school funding law next year. State Solicitor General Stephen McAllister said the changes this year represent an acceptable short-term fix.
"The question, I think, from a constitutional standpoint — I hope it's not that the state has to achieve perfection," McAllister told the court.
The court spent part of its hearing considering whether it could put only part of the state's school aid on hold if it doesn't like legislators' work and hope schools would remain open while litigation continued.
Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the four districts, suggested even that would force a shutdown. He told the court it could order lawmakers to boost aid to poor districts and cut the state budget elsewhere.
"The Legislature just doesn't seem to be getting it," Rupe told the court.
But Cynthia Lane, the Kansas City, Kansas, superintendent, said Rupe's solution would be only a short-term solution.
Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the state slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. Brownback hasn't backed off his signature tax cuts, and enough lawmakers haven't bucked him.
"In the long term, the remedy is a balanced tax policy that allows for quality services to happen for the citizens of Kansas," Lane said after the court's hearing.