Fate Of Kansas School Funding Now In The Hands Of State High Court

Sep 21, 2016

Members of the Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether education in the state is adequate and how the new Legislature should precede.
Credit Charles Riedel / AP

You couldn't have gotten a more different picture of school finance and student success in Kansas than we heard during two hours of oral arguments Wednesday in the state Supreme Court.

The state argued that every public school in Kansas is accredited and an analysis by the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) says Kansas schools rank 10th in the country.

But the plaintiff districts, including Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, said up to a third of Kansas students are not succeeding and unless the state comes up with $800 million more in funding things are just going to get worse.

The argument over whether Kansas is spending enough money to provide every child with an adequate education  was the court showdown every educator, lawmaker and legislative candidate was waiting for. 

“Adequacy does not mean perfection,” Kansas Solicitor General Stephen McAllister told the court. “Kansas is making excellent use (of resources) to do pretty well compared to the nation in terms of what we’re accomplishing.”

The legislature has done its job in this six year old lawsuit and the court should "conclude the system was adequate in 2012, that’s adequate today and that this part of the case should be dismissed.”

But the six plaintiff districts said just the opposite. Attorney Alan Rupe, who has been suing the state over school funding since 1989, said achievement scores started dropping when the state cut  aid during the recession. He argued that they haven't gotten any better "leaving masses of numbers of kids behind in our public education system."

The justices ruled that school equity in Kansas was unconstitutional and forced the Legislature to fix that in a special session this year.

Many educators and lawmakers expect the high court to rule the same on adequacy.

Part of the argument centered on what the potential remedy should be and when it should be imposed.

The state said if the court rules that more money is needed all of it should be targeted to the 30 percent of the students who are failing. McAllister even suggested that taxes need not be raised and money could be redirected from other programs like advanced placement courses.

Even Justice Dan Biles hinted that may be the best approach. "The remedy needs to be aimed at the cancer, if you will."

“We’d be right back here looking at other kids who are not progressing," said KCK Superintendent Cynthia Lane. “I would have us look at whether or not kids are truly prepared for college and careers. We only need to look back at how many students are in remedial classes in college and some of those things to know that there’s more work to be done.”

Most of the arguments during the hearing have been made before as the Gannon case worked its way through the courts.

But there was some discussion about the future and what any remedy would look like.

Both sides mostly agreed that the Supreme Court should offer some guidelines to the Legislature and then give lawmakers until the end of the 2017 session to come up with a fix.

“I like the idea of that they would give us this legislative session. That we’re not going to be compelled to do it in short order,” says Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway. 

Rooker and some other moderate Republicans have already started working on elements of a new funding formula to replace the block grants which expire at the end of this fiscal year.

Equity was solved when conservatives, moderates, educators and Democrats all got into a room and came up with a deal. With more moderates going to Topeka next year Rooker believes lawmakers will be able to pass a new formula that passes constitutional muster.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.