Government & Politics

A third of Kansas kids are falling behind, attorney tells Kansas Supreme Court

Kansas Supreme Court justices listened to arguments in the Gannon v. Kansas school funding case in May.
Kansas Supreme Court justices listened to arguments in the Gannon v. Kansas school funding case in May. Associated Press

Kansas schools aren’t perfect.

Attorneys on both sides of the school finance debate agreed on as much Wednesday morning in front of the Kansas Supreme Court.

But whether that lack of perfection is good enough for all students was the question thrown to the state’s highest court during arguments on the adequacy portion of the Gannon v. Kansas school finance lawsuit.

Attorney Alan Rupe told the justices that roughly a third of students are floundering, while most others are flourishing in the state’s education system.

“We’re falling short,” said Rupe, an attorney representing the four school districts in their case against the state. “We’re leaving massive numbers of kids behind.”

During the arguments, justices lamented the lengthiness of the case, which started in 2010, and questioned what kind of remedy they could offer to help failing students while still preserving the education being offered to the ones that succeed.

Justice Dan Biles said the remedy should be aimed at the struggling students. But he also questioned if gifted programs could be hurt by working to meet adequacy across the board.

“It seems like the Legislature would be in its prerogative to cannibalize money that’s going toward the two-thirds of the kids who are already flourishing in order to fund the remedy,” Biles said.

Rupe told the justices: “I think my clients would tell you that all the cannibalizing that can be done has been done.”

The school districts suing the state — Kansas City, Kan., Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City — allege that Kansas has failed to meet its constitutional duty to adequately fund schools across the state.

A district panel ruled earlier that Kansas schools were illegally underfunded, which led to Wednesday’s case in front of the Kansas Supreme Court. Rupe has estimated that constitutional compliance could cost the state anywhere from $430 million to $1.4 billion.

Throughout the case, the state has maintained that schools are getting record levels of funding. And in its defense Wednesday, the state once again disputed whether the plaintiff school districts’ legal team had proved that funding was inadequate and hurting students.

State solicitor general Stephen McAllister repeated often in his argument that more money doesn’t necessarily mean better results. Kansas is making excellent use of resources to have schools among the best in the country, he said.

“Kansas may spend on the lower end compared to some states,” McAllister said. “But it’s achieving on the higher end. In that sense, I don’t think you really should worry about the input if the output is doing well.”

At one point, McAllister talked about Emerson Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan. It had been ranked as one of the worst performing schools in the state. Test scores jumped at the school after roughly 50 percent of the staff transferred, according to previous Star reporting.

“The number one reason Emerson Elementary turned around was not money,” McAllister said. “It was that they got rid of the principal and half the teachers and changed the attitude and the perspective of that school.”

In his closing remarks, McAllister echoed Justice Biles’ concern that cuts might be made to gifted programs so that other students could meet state standards.

“I wouldn’t want to see it happen, but it seems to me that Advanced Placement courses are way above and beyond” the state’s education standard, McAllister said.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said outside the Supreme Court building that shifting money could cause “a never-ending hamster wheel.”

“If we cannibalize programs that are working and don’t infuse any additional dollars into the system ... I don’t think that’s an appropriate, or intelligent, decision to make to simply pull that money,” Rooker said. “I will fight for outcomes that provide additional funding.”

It is unclear when the justices will announce a ruling.

One solution discussed in court was for the justices to offer legislators guidance on developing a more adequate school finance formula if the court sides with the school districts.

Both attorneys said a full legislative session should be enough time for lawmakers to develop that formula.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw