Several Kansas Supreme Court justices said Tuesday that the state has broken its funding promises to public schools, and an attorney for aggrieved school districts blamed massive personal income tax cuts approved by legislators over the past two years.
At issue is whether the Supreme Court will uphold a lower-court ruling issued in January ordering the state to increase school funding by at least $440 million a year. The justices are considering a lawsuit filed in 2010 by attorneys for students and several school districts, including Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita.
They contend that the state has failed to comply with a 2006 Supreme Court order to increase funding, violating a provision of the Kansas Constitution requiring the Legislature to make "suitable provision" for financing public schools. The court has previously ruled that the state is required to provide schools with enough money to give every child with a suitable education.
The state's attorneys argued that legislators have wide latitude under the Kansas Constitution in deciding how much to spend and did the best they could during and after the Great Recession.
But In ruling against the state early this year, a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court noted that as the state's economy improved, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved massive personal income tax cuts. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback pushed for those tax reductions to stimulate the economy, but critics have said they'll starve state government of funds.
"They took all the resources out of the system and then stand here and plead that they can't afford to increase funding to schools," said Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney representing the students and school districts. "That's the problem that we're dealing with here."
A Supreme Court decision is anticipated by early January 2014. The court is hearing its second round of litigation in less than a decade, with the 2010 lawsuit following up on one filed in 1999.
A state law enacted in 2006 set the state's base funding for public schools at $4,492 per student, but the current base state funding is $3,838 per student, or nearly 15 percent less. However, Kansas allocated about $3 billion for public schools this fiscal year.
State Solicitor General Stephen McAllister argued that the Supreme Court would be overstepping its constitutional authority to step in again and tell lawmakers how much must be spent on public schools. And, he argued, such increases in funding aren't sustainable.
"The Legislature has to deal with the real world," McAllister said. "The constitution shouldn't be a suicide pact."
But Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson said the court signed off on the 2006 law — and ended the previous lawsuit — based on promises that funding would increase.
"It stands before me, in my eyes, as a broken promise," Rosen told McAllister. "If that promise had not been kept, we would not be here."
When McAllister told the justices that legislators had to react to economic realities when making budget decisions, Johnson told him, "This is different."
Justice Dan Biles, who represented the State Board of Education before his appointment to the court, said legislators have described education as the state's top priority.
"Why don't we just hold the Legislature to what they said?" Biles said.
But Biles also questioned whether the attorneys who sued the state presented enough evidence during the lower court trial about how individual students were harmed specifically. Rupe said Kansas courts haven't required such detailed evidenced in the past.