How Close Is The Kansas Supreme Court To Shutting Down Public Schools?

May 10, 2016

After two and a half hours of oral arguments, the Kansas Supreme Court will now decide whether the state Legislature has solved — in the least — the equity portion of school funding and whether schools will remain open past a June 30 court imposed deadline.

The third floor Supreme Court room was packed Tuesday with lawmakers, educators and state officials. All of whom understood the possible ramifications of the hearing. Will schools be open past June 30? Does that mean the Legislature will be called back into special session? And how does this part of the case set up the next, and arguably the stickiest and most complicated part: Whether or not the state is providing an constitutionally adequate education for Kansas children.

But first things first: equity.

Solicitor General Stephen McAllister argued that despite what schools say, equity does not necessarily mean more money for the system. "Equity does not reasonably, in logic or law, require [more tax dollars], he said.

McAllister also said the "landscape is always changing" and that it's impossible to come up with a formula that completely equalizes educational opportunities across a state with 286 districts ranging from in size from several thousand students to just a few dozen.

Justice Dan Biles asked what happens if the Court doesn't strike down the entire school funding law passed in the waning days of the legislative session. What if it only strikes down the portion that deals with how much a district can raise with local property taxes?

Then McAllister made a suggestion that made many school district officials in the room catch their breath.

He answered that school districts should be able to operate without generating any local tax money. "They would have substantial funds available to open school," he said. "They might have to move some things around, I don't know."

The plaintiffs' lead lawyer, Alan Rupe, said that would be disastrous because schools are already finishing up their budgets for next year.

Kansas City, Kansas, Superintendent Cynthia Lane says local property taxes make up $48 million of her budget and any suggestion that districts can get by even a short time without that money shows the state doesn't know what it costs to run a school district: "I don't know how I could run the school district or our board make decisions with $48 million less."

But the school districts caused a stir when it was their turn to argue. Rupe, who has been suing the state over school finance for 27 years, suggested it would take about $34 million more to solve the equity issue. The bill passed by the Legislature essentially moves money around with a few districts getting a little more money.

Rupe says lawmakers could choose to raise more in taxes to meet its constitutional obligation. He also said that the court could order the state to take money from other programs because, he suggested, schools should be funded first because the constitution mandates education.

McAlllister called that "lawless and unprecedented."

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said after the hearing that he believes the option of closing down the schools is probably off the table. While the justices seemed to question the state a little more harshly than the school districts, there was no real indication which way they're leaning.

There's no deadline for the court to rule, but most involved with the case believe a ruling will come fairly soon. Certainly, many lawmakers believe they'll be called back to Topeka to deal with the court's decision.

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