Government & Politics

Kansas Supreme Court skeptical that school funding is fair

TOPEKA – A skeptical Kansas Supreme Court on Tuesday questioned whether recent changes in the state’s education funding system are fair to poor public schools because aid for most districts remained unchanged.

The high court heard arguments on whether the technical changes legislators made earlier this year comply with a February order from the justices to improve funding for poor school districts.

The changes didn’t boost the state’s overall spending and prevented any of the state’s 286 districts from losing funds, tapping an existing education emergency fund to give small increases to a handful.

State Solicitor General Stephen McAllister suggested that the court couldn’t require a school funding system to be perfect to comply with the Kansas Constitution. He also noted that the Republican-dominated Legislature already has committed to writing a new school funding formula next year.

But a key question for the justices appeared to be the lack of change in most districts’ aid.

“Why are we in any different situation than when we were looking at this last time?” Justice Marla Luckert asked McAllister.

McAllister said the situation is better for poor schools partly because the decision to prevent any district from losing money helped them and lawmakers didn’t cut funding.

“At the end of the day, the ‘hold harmless’ does have an equalizing effect,” McAllister said. “We are better off.”

The state’s attorneys have submitted more than 950 pages of documents in an attempt to show that lawmakers’ solution was in keeping with past court decisions. But lawyers for four school districts suing the state contend legislators’ work shouldn’t satisfy the Supreme Court because aid to all poor districts didn’t increase.

The Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts sued the state in 2010, arguing that Kansas spends too little on its schools and unfairly distributes the aid it does provide, more than $4 billion a year.

Justice Dan Biles said from the bench that the state’s school finance formula has “operated unconstitutionally” since 2010 and noted that the court is now considering what happens for the 2016-17 school year.

“How many years do we operate unconstitutionally before we say, you know, the music’s got to stop, and we’ve got to stop dancing?” Biles said.

The court concluded in February that lawmakers hadn’t done enough to ensure that poor districts keep up with wealthy ones. The justices ordered lawmakers to fix the problems by June 30 or face having schools shut down. The court did not say when it would rule.

If the high court rejects the Legislature’s work, lawmakers could go back for another try. Some predict it will happen, though legislators aren’t scheduled to meet again this year, aside from a brief June 1 adjournment ceremony.

McAllister told the court that if it rejected the Legislature’s changes, it should pursue the narrowest possible remedy.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt said after the hearing: “There is no reason in our view for the court to shut the schools.”

Though GOP legislators found neither option palatable, the districts’ attorneys argued that if lawmakers didn’t boost overall spending, they were required to take aid from wealthy districts to give poor districts more.

Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the four school districts, told the court that it could an increase in aid to poor school districts and cuts in spending elsewhere.

“The Legislature just doesn’t seem to be getting it,” Rupe told the court.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the state slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. Brownback hasn’t backed off his signature tax cuts, and neither chamber showed enough of an appetite for reversing them this year.

Legislative committees considered proposals to boost total money to poor districts by taking funds away from as many as 100 districts. But those measures garnered little support.

The state constitution – in a provision adopted by voters 50 years ago this November – requires legislators to make “suitable provision” for financing “educational interests.” The Supreme Court has ruled that the state must finance a suitable education for every child.