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Skeptical Justices Could Force Lawmakers Back to Topeka to Boost School Funding... Again

Senior Judge Michael Malone, sitting in for Justice Caleb Stegall, listens to oral arguments in the Gannon v. Kansas school funding case.  (Orlin Wagner / Associated Press)

The state of Kansas argued in court today (TUE) that its five-year plan to phase in half a billion dollars in additional funding for schools is constitutional. Celia Llopis-Jepsen (YOH-peace JEHP-sehn) of the Kansas News Service has more.  


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(AP version)

Kansas Supreme Court Hears Latest Arguments in School Finance Saga, Many Justices Skeptical of State's Arguments
By JOHN HANNA, AP Political Writer

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court expressed skepticism Tuesday that the Legislature and governor raised public school funding enough in the short-term to comply with the state constitution, suggesting they could be wrestling this summer with providing more money and possibly increasing taxes.

The court is reviewing a law passed this spring by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by GOP Governor Jeff Colyer that will phase in a $548 million education funding increase over five years. It's the second funding boost in two years, but four school districts suing the state argue that it still falls as much as $1.5 billion short of being adequate.  

The court heard arguments from attorneys, and within minutes of starting, Justice Dan Biles said Kansas would wait until "five years from now" to fund what would be adequate this year. Justice Lee Johnson later echoed that sentiment.

Justices Eric Rosen and Marla Luckert suggested that legislators settled on what they wanted to spend on schools rather than what they needed to spend to fulfill their duty under the state constitution.
"There's a lot of frustration here," Rosen said from the bench. "If this isn't a kind of a deja vu, 'we have all been here before' moment, I don't know what is."

Kansas has been in and out of lawsuits over education funding for several decades. The arguments Tuesday were in a lawsuit filed by four school districts in 2010, when this year's high school graduates were fifth-graders. The state Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings, pushing lawmakers to boost funding, declaring in October that the state's current funding of more than $4 billion a year is not adequate.

Toby Crouse, the state's solicitor general, asked the court to declare that the Legislature complied with the court's October order to boost overall spending on public schools.  "It is a fulsome funding system that is going into place," Crouse told the court. "This is a significant input of additional money."

Colyer and legislators have worried that if the court isn't satisfied, it will declare that the state cannot distribute its education dollars through an unconstitutional funding formula, which effectively would keep schools closed until legislators approve a fix. The court threatened to do just that in 2016 to get lawmakers to increase aid to poor school districts.

Legislators from both parties who watched the arguments came away more worried about a ruling against the state. If the court orders more spending, legislators and Colyer might have to consider a tax increase as early as this summer, which lawmakers of all stripes wanted to avoid.

"They did not seem impressed by the size of the increase, nor did they seem impressed by this increase taking five years," said state Representative Melissa Rooker, a moderate Kansas City-area Republican who backed the new law.

The court has promised to issue its ruling by June 30. Attorneys for the four school districts suing the state argued that the justices should rule before then and order lawmakers to boost spending again before July.

But even Biles questioned whether the state Supreme Court has enough information about exactly what funding would be adequate and suggested the justices might have to order more fact-finding by a lower court.

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss raised the same issue in questioning Alan Rupe, the school districts' lead attorney.  Rupe argued that the court has enough information to provide a "road map" for legislators. He pointed to a study commissioned by legislators this year that said improving schools could cost as much as $2 billion more per year, depending on the state's ambitions for improving standardized test scores and graduation rates.

"The court wasn't impressed. We weren't impressed either," said Superintendent Cynthia Lane of the Kansas City, Kansas, school district, one of the four suing the state. "We know if we have more funding, we can help all of our kids improve."

Follow John Hanna on Twitter.

 

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