TOPEKA —Attorney General Derek Schmidt submitted to the Kansas Supreme Court on Monday a written brief defending features of a new $525 million, five-year law adopted to fix equity and adequacy flaws in state aid to public school districts that violated the Kansas Constitution.
He urged the Supreme Court to affirm that work of the 2018 Legislature satisfied the mandate for suitable financing of K-12 schools contained in Article 6 of the constitution. If the court decided the new mix of state aid fell short, the attorney general requested the court implement the first year of the plan and give the 2019 Legislature an opportunity to correct remaining infirmities.
"The court should, at a bare minimum, accept the 2018-19 funding increase as the first step of a multi-year plan," Schmidt said in a 1,300-page packet forwarded to the court. "In no event, should the court order a remedy that would have the effect of closing the schools."
Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney representing four plaintiff school districts in the school-finance lawsuit, said in a separate brief the Supreme Court ought to find the new funding law unconstitutional. His analysis alleged the bill was "politically motivated and does not reflect cost-based decisions that are reasonably calculated to have all students meet or exceed the standards set" by the state.
Rupe, who represents the Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan., public school districts, asserted the funding package didn't adequately account for inflation and knowingly underfunded special education. He recommended the Supreme Court conclude an additional $500 million was necessary to comply with the constitution.
In October, a frustrated Supreme Court issued an opinion warning the legislative and executive branches of state government they would get a final bite at the constitutional apple. Failure to reach firm constitutional footing could lead to blockage of state funding to schools or to a court takeover of the education system until problems were fixed by lawmakers.
The court's ruling last fall said: "We will not allow ourselves to be placed in the position of being complicit actors in the continuing deprivation of a constitutionally adequate and equitable education owed to hundreds of thousands of Kansas school children.”
If the Supreme Court again rules against the state funding law and declines to grant another one-year pass, Gov. Jeff Colyer would have to call a special session of the Legislature to move a bill before start of the new fiscal year July 1.
Colyer, a candidate for the GOP nomination for governor, signed a bill Monday at the Olathe public schools' headquarters that corrected a mistake in the Legislature's major school funding bill. The quick-fix bill made certain as much as $80 million in aid was spent by districts as intended.
“With the signing of this bill to add the $80 million missing from the initial school funding bill, we have put together a strong, good faith effort to respond to the court," the governor said. "Over the next few years, our plan will invest over a half a billion dollars in our schools, get money directly into the classroom, and will also include an increased focus on accountability and get outcomes for our students."
The Supreme Court scheduled the next round of oral arguments on the Gannon case for 9 a.m. May 22.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled legislation approved that year was neither adequate nor equitable to school districts statewide. The justices focused on uneven investment of education dollars and the 25 percent of students deficient in fundamental subjects.
Despite passing two education funding bills in the just-concluded legislative session, Republican and Democratic state legislators shared a belief the reform would not be upheld by the Supreme Court. Bipartisan attempts to insert more dollars and policy directives in the bills were rebuffed.
"It is likely to be found unconstitutional by the Kansas Supreme Court," said Rep. Pam Curtis, D-Kansas City.
Rep. Brenda Dietrich, a Topeka Republican who previously served as superintendent in the Auburn-Washburn district, said the law had an "excellent chance" of passing constitutional muster.
During the 2018 session, GOP leadership in the House and Senate hired a professor at Texas A&M University to conduct a school-finance study that could be used by the Legislature to reach consensus on new aid to districts.
Professor Lori Taylor stunned lawmakers, especially those who thought the handpicked analyst would low-ball the estimate for reaching constitutional compliance. She recommended Kansas add a minimum of $450 million to achieve Kansas' academic goals for K-12 students.
The Legislature cobbled together school spending statutes that appropriate $190 million in additional state aid next year, with gradual growth in spending reaching $525 million by 2023.