Kansas on defensive over school funding before court
TOPEKA (AP) — Several Kansas Supreme Court justices said Tuesday that the state has broken its funding promises to public schools, but they acknowledged that the current funding guidelines might not be feasible for the state, long-term.
At issue is whether the Supreme Court will uphold a lower-court's January ruling ordering the state to increase school funding by at least $440 million a year. The justices are considering a lawsuit filed in 2010 by attorneys for students and several school districts, including Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita.
They contend that the state has failed to comply with a 2006 Supreme Court order to increase funding, violating a provision of the Kansas Constitution requiring the Legislature to make "suitable provision" for financing public schools. The court has previously ruled that the state is required to give schools enough money to provide every child with a suitable education.
Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson said the court signed off on the 2006 law — and ended the previous lawsuit — based on promises that funding would increase.
"It stands before me, in my eyes, as a broken promise," Rosen said from the bench. "If that promise had been kept, we would not be here."
When State Solicitor General Stephen McAllister, who defended the state in the hearing, told the justices that legislators had to react to economic realities when making budget decisions, Johnson told him, "This is different."
Justice Dan Biles, who represented the State Board of Education before his appointment to the court, said legislators have described education as the state's top priority.
"Why don't we just hold the Legislature to what they said?" Biles said.
McAllister argued that legislators have latitude under the Kansas Constitution over spending decisions, though they did the best they could during and after the Great Recession, including using federal stimulus dollars given to states to blunt the financial impact.
But in a ruling issued in January, a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court noted that as the state's economy improved, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved massive personal income tax cuts. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback pushed for those tax reductions to stimulate the economy, but critics have said they'll starve state government of funds.
"They took all the resources out of the system and then stand here and plead that they can't afford to increase funding to schools," said Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney representing the students and school districts. "That's the problem that we're dealing with here."
A Supreme Court decision is anticipated by early January 2014. The court is hearing its second round of litigation in less than a decade, with the 2010 lawsuit following up on one filed in 1999.
A state law enacted in 2006 set the state's base funding for public schools at $4,492 per student, but the current base state funding is $3,838 per student, or nearly 15 percent less. However, Kansas allocated about $3 billion for public schools this fiscal year.
McAllister argued that the Supreme Court would be overstepping its constitutional authority to step in again and tell lawmakers how much must be spent on public schools. And, he argued, such increases in funding aren't sustainable.
"The Legislature has to deal with the real world," McAllister said. "The constitution shouldn't be a suicide pact."
Rosen asked the plaintiffs' attorney when, if ever, the state's 40-year cycle of school funding lawsuits would end especially with ever-changing demands on schools to meet new education standards, from the federal No Child Left Behind Act to new Common Core standards adopted by the state in 2010.
"Is there an end in sight?" Rosen said.
Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said the court needed guidance on how it determines what defines an adequate education and proper funding, given that education requirements have been changed repeatedly by state and federal officials.
"I'm looking for the standard," Nuss said.
Biles also questioned whether there was enough evidence about how individual students were harmed specifically. Rupe said Kansas courts haven't required such detailed evidenced in the past.
However, Rupe conceded after the hearing that the justices could reverse the lower court's ruling and send it back for retrial to compel the plaintiffs to prove individual students were harmed by the funding decisions.