Kansas Supreme Court Says Schools Could Close If System Doesn't Change

May 2, 2016
Originally published on May 2, 2016 8:42 am

In 13 states, parents and school districts are suing, saying schools aren't getting enough money to serve the needs of students.

In no other state are the courts more baked in to school funding than in Kansas, though.

There, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on the latest funding case within the next week. If justices don't approve of the legislators' fix to the system, the court could shut down public schools on June 30.

One of the plaintiffs in that case is the Kansas City school district. "I understand that people want to paint us as money-grubbing mongers," says district Superintendent Cynthia Lane.

"But really what we want is adequate resources to do the job we know how to do."

Lane's students are poor: 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Most, she says, live in homes without computers or books. That's why her district is suing the state.

There's much more on the story in Kansas. To find out why Alan Rupe, a lawyer, has been suing Kansas for 27 years, click here.

The story of the school funding debate between the courts and lawmakers in Kansas is part of the NPR reporting project School Money, a nationwide collaboration between NPR's Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students. Join the conversation on Twitter by using #SchoolMoney.

Copyright 2017 KCUR-FM. To see more, visit KCUR-FM.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to move to education now and specifically the funding of public schools. More than a dozen states are being sued by parents and school districts right now over school funding. Kansas is the epicenter of this litigation. And the state's Supreme Court hears the latest case in just a few days. Sam Zeff of member station KCUR in Kansas City reports.

SAM ZEFF, BYLINE: The current case was filed five years ago. It says two things. Kansas has failed to provide enough money to adequately educate all of its kids and that funding is inequitable between districts. But here's what really sets Kansas apart.

ALAN RUPE: My name's Alan Rupe. I'm a lawyer in Wichita, Kan. And I have been involved in school finance litigation since the middle of the year 1989.

ZEFF: That's right. Rupe has been suing Kansas for 27 years. An entire generation of educators here has rarely seen a time without a school funding lawsuit. The current lawsuit has tied the Legislature in knots for two years. Recently, the court threatened to close public schools on June 30 if lawmakers failed to equalize funding across the state. That threat did not sit well with conservative lawmakers, including state Senator Jeff Melcher from suburban Kansas City.

JEFF MELCHER: This was really a temper tantrum by the courts. They were threatening to shut down our entire school system statewide over about a 1 percent inequity between school districts. And that's just pathetic.

ZEFF: Representative Jerry Lunn, another conservative Republican, says the state spends 51 percent of its revenue on schools.

JERRY LUNN: I'm sorry. I'm - it's laughable to suggest that we're adequately funding K-12 in Kansas.

ZEFF: But the plaintiff school districts have argued it's the Legislature's attempt to solve the problem that's laughable. They say lawmakers essentially move dollars around with a handful of poor districts getting a little more money. In their Supreme Court brief, those districts called it a shell game.

CYNTHIA LANE: I understand that people want to paint us as money-grubbing mongers, that that's all we want, that there's no end.

ZEFF: That's Cynthia Lane, superintendent of the Kansas City, Kan. school district and one of the plaintiffs.

LANE: But really, what we want is adequate resources to do the job that we know how to do.

ZEFF: Lane's students are poor. Eighty percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Most, she says, go to homes with no computers or books. That's why she's suing the state.

LANE: We know that studies that have been done show that when you invest and you provide quality funding for quality schools, then great things happen for kids. So money does matter.

ZEFF: So whether schools will get more money for even stay open in Kansas now depends on two hours of arguments in the state Supreme Court on May 10. The state will say it passed a bill that fixes the problem. The schools will argue the fix actually makes things worse. And attorney Alan Rupe will make another one of his many arguments for Kansas schools.

RUPE: Our people are our greatest resource. And if we're shorting these kids on their education just to save a buck, that's not a very smart move for the economic development in the state.

ZEFF: For NPR News, I'm Sam Zeff in Kansas City.

MARTIN: This story is part of the NPR Ed series School Money. To see what the districts in your state spend per student, visit npr.org/schoolmoney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.