Kansas’ top court hears potentially costly school aid case

(AP Photo/John Hanna, File)
(AP Photo/John Hanna, File)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Supreme Court justices have briefly considered whether the state could pay for a suitable education for every child by shifting funds out of programs for gifted students.

The court heard arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by four school districts. They argue that the state’s nearly $4.1 billion a year in aid to its 286 school districts is not enough to provide a suitable education for every child.

Justice Dan Biles suggested during the arguments that the court might have to target its order to helping underachieving students.

State Solicitor General Stephen McAllister said school districts might be able to help underachieving students by taking money out of Advanced Placement courses. But he said he wouldn’t want that to happen and educators rejected the idea.

Justice Dan Biles raised the issue Wednesday during arguments before the court in a lawsuit filed by four school districts in 2010. The districts argue that the state’s nearly $4.1 billion a year in aid to its 286 school districts is not adequate.

Biles questioned districts’ attorney Alan Rupe about his argument that the state needs to boost its annual spending by $800 million. Rupe said a third to half of the state’s public school students are struggling.

But Biles said the state constitution appears to require the state to target struggling students because others already receive an adequate education.

Attorney Alan Rupe argued Wednesday before the justices that legislators have failed to meet their duty under the state constitution to provide a suitable education to every child. The state’s annual aid to its 286 districts is nearly $4.1 billion, but Rupe suggested that falls about $800 million a year short of being adequate.

Rupe said that students’ test scores on standardized English and math scores show that between a third and half of them are struggling.

The state argues that its education system compares well with those in other states and that funding is adequate.

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and four other justices on the seven-member court on Wednesday peppered state Solicitor General Stephen McAllister with questions, after he suggested that the high court should defer to the Legislature.

The state argued that its annual aid of nearly $4.1 billion a year to its 286 districts is sufficient for legislators to meet their constitutional duty to provide a suitable education for every child.

Several justices pointed to data from state standardized tests suggesting many children aren’t on track to be ready for college and they challenged McAllister when he suggested spending isn’t necessarily crucial to student performance. 

Solicitor General Stephen McAllister appeared Wednesday before the court in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by four school districts. The state is trying to persuade the court that the state’s annual aid of nearly $4.1 billion a year to its 286 districts is sufficient.

The Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas districts argue that legislators are hundreds of millions of dollars short each year in fulfilling their constitutional duty to give every child a suitable education.

A lower-court panel sided with the districts. The state appealed.


Attorneys for cash-strapped Kansas are trying to persuade a state Supreme Court not to order hundreds of millions of dollars in additional aid each year for schools.

But lawyers for four poorer school districts, who will present arguments before the court Wednesday, say they are confident the judges will side with them. The Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts filed their lawsuit in 2010. More than 70 percent of their students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, giving them more at-risk students than 90 percent of all districts in the state.

The four districts contend in part that legislators aren’t providing enough aid to schools to fulfill a duty under the state constitution to give every child a suitable education. The six-year legal dispute has pitted the seven court justices — six of whom were appointed by Democratic or moderate Republican governors — against conservative Republicans, who control the rest of state government.

The high court has reviewed the case multiple times and directed legislators to increase funding for poor districts so they don’t fall too far behind wealthier ones. But the high court is now considering whether the state’s nearly $4.1 billion in annual aid to its 286 school districts is sufficient — or as much as $1.4 billion a year short.

The state’s lawyers argue that Kansas has a good public education system and total spending is a political issue left to legislators unless their decisions are irrational or arbitrary. Attorney General Derek Schmidt said before Wednesday’s argument that the court should avoid becoming a “super-Legislature” enmeshed in the details of school funding.

“That’s clearly not what the constitution contemplates,” Schmidt said in an Associated Press interview. “It doesn’t contemplate that the courts are going to be ultimate arbiters of what the school funding system has to look like.”

A ruling isn’t expected until after the November election. Education officials and the school districts’ lawyers said a decision against the state could cost Kansas from $430 million to $1.4 billion annually.

The districts’ attorneys argue that the state could afford additional spending if Republican legislators hadn’t slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013. Brownback pushed the tax cuts as an economic stimulus, but the state has struggled to balance its budget since.

The districts’ attorneys also argue that the state’s own data from new standardized English and math tests last year undercuts arguments that Kansas is spending enough on its public schools. The state reported in November that a majority of students weren’t on track to be ready academically for college based on their scores on spring tests.

“It’s pretty obvious what the court is going to do,” said John Robb, one of the districts’ attorneys. “They’re going to say it’s unconstitutional, and the Legislature needs to fix it.”

 

 

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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