Kansas school litigation saga returns to courtroom
TOPEKA (AP) — A long-awaited appeal of a ruling requiring the state of Kansas to increase funding for public schools takes center stage Tuesday, perhaps settling the argument over whether policymakers arbitrarily shortchanged students or did the best they could in difficult financial times.
The appeal comes after a Shawnee County District Court ruling that spending cuts in recent legislative sessions caused an "unconstitutional eroding" of education funding. The county court's three-judge panel ordered the state to reverse those declines effective with the 2014 budget.
The case was appealed, staying the court's order to increase base funding to $4,492 as required by law at a cost of more than $440 million. The current base state funding is $3,838 per student.
Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt said Friday the case doesn't belong in a courtroom because it questions decisions by elected officials on what to spend, not how to spend state tax dollars.
"The Legislature's actions have been reasonable," said Schmidt, a former Senate majority leader. "Given that, the decision on amounts of funding is ultimately a political one to be made by the elected branches, subject to review by the people on election day, not by the plaintiffs in a courtroom."
John Robb, a Newton attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, doesn't buy that argument but expected that stance from Schmidt.
"As much as he doesn't like it, that's what the court and the constitution say the state must do," Robb said.
Kansas allocated about $3 billion to spend on schools this fiscal year. To reach the court's threshold, the state would have to allocate an additional $440 million, as well as millions more in related funding provisions in the law.
That's money the state doesn't have in the bank or coming in through tax collections after cuts were made to business and individual income tax rates that took effect Jan. 1. The choice to cut taxes instead of using that money on education wasn't lost on the lower court when it made its ruling.
"It appears to us that the only certain result of the tax cut will be further reduction of existing resources and from a cause, unlike the Great Recession which had a cause external to Kansas, that is home-spun, hence, self-inflicted," the judges wrote. "While the Legislature has said that educational funding is a priority, the passage of the tax cut bill suggests otherwise."
The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by Robb and Alan Rupe, who are representing students and school districts, including Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita. They argued that despite the 2006 Supreme Court order, achievement gaps remained, dropout levels are high and students in general are completing school with less opportunity and less education than the generation before.
Districts don't receive just the base state aid per student but a greater amount based on the formula, which calculates additional funding based on student demographics such as poverty and English language skills. As a result, districts receive an average of $6,000 to $10,000 per student. The state also makes contributions to the pension funds of school employees each year.
The state has built its case on the grounds that legislators did their best to mitigate the effects of the Great Recession while balancing the needs of other essential state services. Schmidt and others maintain that the recession and declining state revenues meant that all government budgets had to be cut. Legislators tried to blunt the cuts by using federal stimulus dollars and enacting a 1-cent sales tax increase in 2010.
"The bottom line question is whether governors of both political parties and Legislatures over multiple years have acted rationally in times of extreme economic stress. I think they have," Schmidt said.
A ruling on the case could come by the end of the year as they did in a previous lawsuit filed in 1999 by Robb and Rupe. That case was heard by the court in the fall of 2004 and a ruling issued in January 2005 before legislators began their annual 90-day session. The case was ultimately dismissed by the court in 2006 when legislators boosted funding to comply with the ruling.
Robb said that scenario was likely again. Legislators return to Topeka on Jan. 13 for a 90-day session in what also is an election year for the Kansas House, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and Schmidt.
"We've already seen legislators comment in the media that they intend to defy the courts. I don't think that's appropriate," Robb said. "I think they are listening to the people they want to. The majority of the people aren't telling them to cut the schools."
Schmidt said the goal of the tax cuts was to spur long-term economic growth which would generate additional revenues for state services. Voters, not judges and attorneys, should determine if policymakers made the right call, he said.
"If they are wrong, the proper recourse is at the ballot box, not the courtroom," he said.