State attorneys tried to persuade the Kansas Supreme Court Tuesday that lawmakers’ attempt to develop a new school finance formula was the solution they’ve long been waiting to see.
But the lawyers defending the legislation immediately faced questions and doubts over the formula and its funding from the very people they hoped would sign off on the plan.
“This just looks like deja vu all over again,” Justice Dan Biles said.
Tuesday’s arguments were the latest stage of the Gannon v. Kansas school finance case that originated in 2010 when four school districts, including Kansas City, Kan., sued the state over education funding.
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State solicitor general Stephen McAllister told the justices the Legislature passed a reasonably calculated formula during “a difficult budget era.”
“There’s a lot of new money going into the system,” he said.
The new formula adds a net of roughly $488 million to state school funding over two years. Critics of the funding plan have warned it may trigger a special legislative session if the court takes issue with the bill.
Back in March, the Kansas Supreme Court found the state had failed to ensure adequate funding for public schools. Kansas lawmakers passed the new school finance formula before the end of the legislative session in the aftermath of that ruling.
Alan Rupe, the attorney representing the districts suing the state, chastised the Legislature for the funding level in the bill.
His legal team contended in an earlier court filing that the “the lowest estimate of what it costs to constitutionally fund an education to Kansas K-12 public school students is … $893 million over the next two years.”
“The magnitude of the solution needs to meet the magnitude of the problem,” Rupe said.
The state’s legal team argued that the formula meets the court’s standard.
“The education system is always a work in progress,” McAllister said.
Leading justices also criticized the Kansas Legislature for its progress on school finance issues.
“I just wonder if the plaintiffs have a point and that is, you’re asking us to give another two or three years for things to play out when this lawsuit was filed in 2010,” Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said.
Justice Lee Johnson indicated to the court that the funding increase in the new formula isn’t as significant when viewed over a multi-year span.
The block grants that were in place before the new formula took effect essentially froze school funding during recent years.
Funding under the new formula increases by more than $194 million for the 2017-18 school year, according to the Kansas State Department of Education.
“That $194 (million) you were talking earlier about phasing in, if you want to talk about phasing in, you’ve phased in $194 (million) over a three year period, because it’s the only significant increase in three years,” Johnson said.
The court’s March ruling also found Kansas had failed to provide roughly one-quarter of its public school students with basic math and reading skills
Students falling behind in school were again a point of concern for the court Tuesday.
“If we just consider African-American and Hispanic high school students, we know from the record that more than half of them are below proficient in reading and math, what’s SB 19 do for them?” Justice Biles asked about the legislation that included the new formula.
Jeff King, an attorney arguing in favor of the state and the formula, answered the bill makes sure that money goes towards struggling students.
He also argued later that it would take several years to see how the spending plan impacts outcomes for students.
“Give this bill time to work,” King said.
After the hearing, Rupe lamented that he heard similar calls for more time before.
“I have yet to see an attorney for the state not stand up and say ‘I need more time.’ They say it all the time,” Rupe said. “But the time is now.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he felt the Legislature had “met every one of their demands,” when it comes to the formula.
“It’ll take several years to find out if this new formula approach works or not,” Denning said.
He called the number the plaintiffs threw out for additional funding “unrealistic.”
“You wouldn’t be able to raise taxes that much,” Denning said. “Your constituents wouldn’t allow that. So you wouldn’t want to cut Medicaid. I certainly don’t want to cut Medicaid $600 million and take all the kids off Medicaid. I don’t want to not pay the correction officers, so that’s where it gets tough for a legislative body.”