Government & Politics

Lawmakers confident court will OK school funding. What happens if they’re wrong?

Gov. Jeff Colyer speaks to reporters after signing a bill Monday to fix an $80 million error in a new school funding law.
Gov. Jeff Colyer speaks to reporters after signing a bill Monday to fix an $80 million error in a new school funding law. The Wichita Eagle

Four times during the past three years, the Kansas Supreme Court has found problems with how public schools are funded.

Top lawmakers and officials think they have it right this time. But school districts suing over funding say schools eventually need $1.7 billion to $2 billion more.

If the court agrees more needs to be done, anything may happen — from a special session at the height of campaign season to the closure of schools.

"This is a strong, good-faith effort," Gov. Jeff Colyer said after a bill signing Monday in Olathe.

Rep. Fred Patton, a key Republican lawmaker on school funding, said he was pretty confident and that lawmakers approved a good formula. "We did our math, we showed our work," he said.

Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, sounded a similar note. “I am really confident,” he said.

The Legislature approved a five-year school funding plan this spring after the Supreme Court said funding is inadequate. By the fifth year, schools will receive about $500 million more each year than they do right now.

Kansas City, Kan., schools will see a boost of nearly $9 million next year under the plan. Wichita schools will receive about $18.3 million more.

Several lawmakers said the Legislature has passed a strong bill that has a good shot of being upheld by the court. Some said it is possible the justices may find problems but will uphold the bulk of the plan. Still others were skeptical the court will view the bill favorably.

“I would be so surprised if we’re not (back for a special session). That’s all I can say. And of course, I am not the Supreme Court. None of us are. We don’t know,” said Sen. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills.

For school districts, the uncertainty makes planning more difficult, said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. At one extreme, the court could block funding for schools until the Legislature passes a constitutional plan. That option could effectively close schools.

“In the event of Armageddon, nobody really knows” what happens, Tallman said.

On the other hand, the court could give lawmakers additional time to find a solution. That would allow the Legislature to come back for a special session and fix issues. Some hope the court wouldn't require a new plan until next year, though.

The yearly uncertainty over funding has “hit our teacher and staff morale more than anything,” said LeEtta Felter, an Olathe Public Schools board member.

For lawmakers, a special session would interrupt campaigning in the lead up to the August primary. A special session could force lawmakers to take potentially difficult votes that opponents could seize on in the weeks before the election.

The court will rule on the funding plan by June 30. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed a brief with the court on Monday arguing the funding plan is constitutional. He wrote that lawmakers modeled the law after the last school funding formula the court found constitutional more than a decade ago.

“The Court should find substantial compliance and dismiss this case,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt also asked, if the court finds problems, that it allow lawmakers to address issues in 2019. That would avoid the need for a special session.

Attorneys for districts suing over funding also filed a brief on Monday. In their filing, they argued the school funding plan was politically motivated and doesn't reflect a cost-based approach designed to help all students meet academic standards.

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, has concerns with possible equity issues in the law — problems with how funding is distributed between richer and poorer districts.

“I’m hoping, perhaps, they will let it go and give us a deadline to fix it and so we don’t have to come back for a special session, but I won’t be surprised,” Kelly said.

The court found equity problems in a previous school funding formula, leading to a special session in June 2016 to correct the issues. Calling lawmakers back to Topeka could cost more than $40,000 a day.

Previous court opinions have angered conservative Republicans, who view the justices’ involvement in school funding as an overreach. At times, that anger has led to chatter about defying or ignoring the court.

Colyer made clear that ignoring the court would not be acceptable if the justices find problems in the new funding plan.

“We’ll deal with whatever the Supreme Court sends our way,” Colyer said.

The bill signed by Colyer at the headquarters of Olathe public schools corrects an $80 million error in the first year of the funding plan. If left unchanged, the error would have severely reduced the size of the increase in school funding next year.

Frustration with the court has also led to increased calls for a constitutional amendment that would curtail future lawsuits over funding. Colyer offered a mild embrace of an amendment.

“It may be time sometime for the people of Kansas to have their voice heard on dealing with this issue. I am the 10th governor that’s been under litigation. We’ve dealing with this for 50 years,” Colyer told reporters. “I’m not under any illusion that it’s all going to suddenly end, but I think we start that process to doing this.”

The Coalition for Fair Funding — composed of business and agricultural groups — lobbied the Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment in the final weeks of session, which ended Friday. The amendment embraced by the coalition would give lawmakers the sole authority to set total funding levels for schools.

The effort stalled after Senate Republican leaders briefly blocked legislation pending passage of the amendment. Although a House committee advanced the amendment, it was never debated on the House floor.

Supporters may try again if a special session is held. John Donley, a lobbyist for the coalition, said coalition members will gather in the coming days to decide what’s next, and he acknowledged a special session could reignite debate.

Regardless of whether a special session is called, “I anticipate the conversation will continue,” he said.

To pass, an amendment would need support from two-thirds of the House and Senate and approval by a majority of voters statewide.