Skeptical Justices Could Force Lawmakers Back To Topeka To Boost School Funding Again

May 23, 2018
Originally published on May 24, 2018 5:55 am

If districts suing the state get their way, the Kansas Legislature could be back in Topeka within weeks to add another half a billion dollars to school budgets in time for the coming academic year.

The districts hope the Kansas Supreme Court will also tell the state to phase in hundreds of millions beyond that in the years to come.

"We're not there yet."

Last winter the Legislature commissioned a study suggesting Kansas could need to add as much as $1.8 to $2.1 billion to close achievement gaps, graduate 95 percent of students from high school and ensure most are prepared for college or careers after that.

During oral arguments in the Gannon v. Kansas case Tuesday, a lawyer for the school districts returned repeatedly to those findings.

“The constitution requires suitable funding, adequate funding, and we're not there yet,” attorney Alan Rupe said.

The state argued a five-year plan lawmakers passed this spring to ratchet up school spending over the next half decade — ultimately adding more than half a billion dollars in annual state aid to schools — is enough to provide children the public education guaranteed in the state constitution.

Even if the court concludes otherwise, solicitor general Toby Crouse said, it shouldn’t force lawmakers to fix the situation before they return to Topeka for the 2019 legislative session.

"At the end of the day the state of Kansas believes that schools should open," Crouse said.

The school districts want the matter resolved by June 30 and the court has indicated it will rule by then.

If the court orders more spending this summer and the Legislature doesn’t comply, the justices could effectively shutter schools by striking down current funding as unconstitutional and stopping disbursements of state aid.

"Déjà vu"

As Crouse fended off the findings in the study the Legislature commissioned, he said the expert’s calculations were based on hitting aggressive academic targets that no state has yet achieved — including that 95 percent graduation rate.

Doing so would effectively mean bringing all school districts to the level of Johnson County’s Blue Valley, one of the state’s richest, best performing districts. The plaintiff school districts argue that’s not unreasonable.

One justice called the state’s position “déjà vu.” He pointed to studies lawmakers had commissioned in the past that also recommended increasing spending on schools — and that also met with legislative resistance.

“Here you all are always battling your own expert,” Justice Eric Rosen said.

Crouse replied that the Legislature had opted to mimic funding standards set by the court back in the Montoy v. Kansas case of the mid-2000s, rather than following the latest study.

“We have to be right, and the safest thing to do was go back to Montoy,” he said.

That met with skepticism from the justices, who questioned whether the five-year plan achieves even that. They also wondered why they should trust the state and lawmakers to follow through on the plan.

The state wants the court to dismiss this latest lawsuit, but, justices said, a few years after they dismissed the Montoy case, the state reneged on its multi-year plan to increase school funding. It’s been out of compliance ever since.

If something similar were to happen again, Crouse suggested, school districts could file a new lawsuit.

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss pushed back. In 2010, schools filed the current lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, because the Montoy plan had fallen apart. The case is still going nearly eight years later.

“Your position is, a repeat of that process is the way things should happen?” Chief Justice Lawton Nuss asked. “That’s just the process, in your view, and that’s satisfactory?”

“Well, I don’t know whether it’s satisfactory,” Crouse said. “I’m not trying to duck the question. I think that’s the process.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ

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