Lawyers for Kansas and for dozens of school districts suing it filed briefs Friday at the Kansas Supreme Court, in what could be the final leg of a seven-year legal battle over school finance.
The state argues legislation passed early last month ratchets up annual state aid to schools by nearly $300 million over the next two years, and that should be enough to end the Gannon v. Kansas case once and for all.
The plaintiffs, meanwhile, lay out a case for increasing funding by another $600 million on top of that. If that argument succeeds, it could prompt a special legislative session to appropriate more money — and hammer out the details of how to pay for it.
Each side has one week to submit reply briefs picking apart each other’s claims. Oral arguments are scheduled for July 18.
In their brief, the state’s lawyers homed in on the Legislature’s decision to increase funds targeted at helping students who struggle academically. They also pointed to extra financial support for early childhood education and all-day kindergarten.
“This substantial new funding benefits underperforming subgroups directly,” the brief says, and argues the extra dollars for kindergarten further free up existing budgetary resources that school districts had been diverting to cover kindergarten expenses.
Instead, schools can now spend those resources on initiatives for struggling students, the lawyers said.
Providing schools with the means to address Kansas’ persistent achievement gap was a key task for lawmakers, identified by the Kansas Supreme Court in a March ruling.
The justices wrote then that one-quarter of Kansas public school students were falling short of basic math and reading skills, and they noted the disproportionate effect for Hispanic and African-American children and students from low-income families.
The March decision was the latest in a string of court rulings that have largely sided with plaintiffs’ claims that Kansas is neither putting enough money into education nor distributing it in such a way that children with disadvantaged backgrounds have educational opportunities on a par with those who attend schools in wealthier areas.
Lawyers for the school districts hope the justices will agree with them yet again and find the state has fallen short of the mark this time, too.
It cites recommendations from the Kansas State Board of Education calling for a nearly $900 million increase in state aid over a two-year period.
The new law “wholly ignores the estimates of several expert bodies as to what it actually costs to provide Kansas schoolchildren with a constitutional education,” the brief says.
The state board’s recommendation also included more state aid per pupil, plus higher increases for special education and teacher mentoring and training programs than those included in the new law.
Lawyers also pointed backward in time to make their argument. A decade ago, the Legislature agreed to a basic funding level of $4,492 per student, to take effect in fiscal 2010. The plan fell by the wayside after the 2008 financial crisis sparked steep budget reductions and sweeping 2012 tax cuts ate into state revenues.
“Now, seven years later, the State is only providing a base of $4,006 per student,” the brief says, adding that $4,492, adjusted for inflation, would be $5,035 today.
The state, however, argues that its appropriations for K-12 in the new law are based on an analysis of spending levels at 41 schools districts with notable academic achievement relative to their demographic characteristics. Additionally, the new law provides for future increases by tying funding to inflation rates.
These decisions are “eminently rational,” the state’s lawyers wrote, and help demonstrate that the law complies with the Kansas Constitution.
Article 6 of the Constitution tasks the Legislature with making “suitable provision” for education.
The state also rejects the plaintiffs’ allegations that state aid is distributed unfairly and puts children in poorer school districts at a disadvantage. Lawyers argued the new law includes sufficient measures to bolster the resources of poorer districts.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.