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Kansas Supreme Court: Lawmakers Finally Put Enough Money Into Schools

Kansas Supreme Court justices on the day this spring they heard the latest arguments about school spending. (Associated Press pool photo by Orlin Wagner)

The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday effectively ended a nearly decade-long lawsuit by ruling that state lawmakers finally sent enough money to local school districts.

“The State,” the justices wrote, “has shown its proposed remedy substantially complies with our mandate.”

But the court wants to make sure lawmakers follow through with promises to add hundreds of millions of dollars a year in funding. The justices didn’t fully dismiss the lawsuit, so any future disagreements could take a shortcut directly back to the state’s high court.

“We retain jurisdiction to ensure continued implementation of the scheduled funding,” the justices wrote.

Attorneys for the school districts have argued the state didn’t add enough money when lawmakers adjusted a 2018 funding boost for inflation.

The justices considered the “inexact nature” of accounting for inflation and said the state’s plan to add money over four years and include automatic inflation adjustments in the future fixed the problem.

“By employing estimates and projections now available, it also protects against the devaluing effects of future inflation,” the ruling said. “We did not order specific levels or even prescribe a particular method for how to calculate any levels.”

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly initially introduced the inflation adjustment plan this year, based on numbers from the Kansas State Department of Education.

“Educating our kids is not just one of the best ways to address challenges facing our state, it’s also our moral and constitutional obligation,” Kelly said Friday in a statement. “Yet, for years, our leaders failed to meet that obligation.”

Conservative Republican leaders in the Senate supported the plan. Senate President Susan Wagle said Friday she was disappointed that the court “ has refused to close the case.” Now, she said, legislators need to watch how the money for schools is used.

“The Kansas Legislature must now make sure the additional funding delivers real results for our students,” Wagle said in a statement. “We must improve our graduation rates and ensure that our students are prepared for college, technical school, or the workforce when they graduate.”

During a hearing last month, even some of the justices expressed frustration at the length of the Gannon lawsuit that challenged whether state education spending met a requirement for adequate funding set down in the Kansas Constitution.

“Is there ever ‘crossing the finish line’ in these types of cases?” Justice Eric Rosen asked during the hearing in May.

Kansas lawmakers took swings at ending the lawsuit during the last two sessions. In 2018, legislators approved phasing in a $500 million increase in funding for schools over multiple years.

The justices said it was close but not quite enough. The court ordered lawmakers to adjust that funding plan for inflation. In 2019, legislators approved a bipartisan bill to do just that.

The bill added another $90 million more per year for each of the following four years. After that, inflation adjustments would happen automatically based on the federal Consumer Price Index.

School districts suing the state argued legislators still hadn’t done enough. Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the schools, said the state still fell short because the new solution only calculated inflation for part of the funding increase to schools, not overall spending.

“You don’t figure the inflation on a loaf of bread by taking one slice and figuring the inflation on that slice,” Rupe said last month. “It’s on the whole loaf of bread.”

Rupe argued hitting the inflation target would take a steeper ramp-up in funding, ending with an additional $270 million per year by 2023.

Toby Crouse, arguing for the state last month, said the fact that the inflation adjustment garnered bipartisan support shows the state had reached a reasonable solution.

“Everyone agrees that this is what satisfies not only the constitution,” Crouse said, “but also the best interests of the children.”

The issue now hinges on lawmakers following through. The Gannon lawsuit actually grew out of a failure by lawmakers to live up to funding increases promised in an earlier lawsuit. During the Great Recession, lawmakers backed off the promised funding increases that ended the previous lawsuit, which led to the filing of the Gannon case.

While lawmakers approved the inflation adjustment with a bipartisan majority this year, many of the plan’s opponents said the state couldn’t live up to the funding targets. That could mean continued court fights and uncertainty for schools.

Republican House Speaker Ron Ryckman said the state won’t be able to afford the planned increases without tax hikes or cuts to other services.

“Without a stable and balanced budget the governor’s plan is built upon an empty promise,” Ryckman said in a statement Friday.

The governor wants to make sure lawmakers meet their funding goals.

“I will do everything I can to hold the Legislature to its promise to fully fund our schools and avoid more legal battles over our education system,” Kelly said in her statement on Friday.

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