Kansas jus­tices key on school fund­ing

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL -

TOPEKA, Kan. — The Kansas Supreme Court on Tues­day be­gan weigh­ing whether state leg­is­la­tors boosted spend­ing on pub­lic schools enough this year to pro­vide a suit­able ed­u­ca­tion to all chil­dren, as the court had or­dered.

Jus­tices heard ar­gu­ments from at­tor­neys about the new school fi­nance mea­sure signed into law in June but ap­peared skep­ti­cal that the fund­ing plan of­fers enough money to pro­vide a suit­able ed­u­ca­tion for chil­dren statewide. The court is ex­pected to rule quickly; at­tor­neys for the dis­tricts want the jus­tices to de­clare that the new law isn’t ad­e­quate and or­der law­mak­ers to fix it by Sept. 1 — only a few weeks af­ter the start of the new school year.

That law phases in a $293 mil­lion in­crease in ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing over two years. The jus­tices ruled in March that the state’s then-$4 bil­lion a year in aid to its 286 school dis­tricts was in­ad­e­quate.

School dis­tricts su­ing for more fund­ing say the state needs to add nearly $900 mil­lion over two years. But an at­tor­ney for the state coun­tered that the new law vastly im­proved the pre­vi­ous way schools were funded.

In de­fend­ing the law, at­tor­neys for the state have noted that it fully funds all-day kinder­garten pro­grams and in­creases spend­ing for pro­grams for at-risk stu­dents. It also prom­ises fu­ture in­creases in spend­ing to keep up with in­fla­tion.

The state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion pro­posed phas­ing in an $893 mil­lion in­crease over two years, but Alan Rupe, an at­tor­ney for a group of school dis­tricts su­ing over the fund­ing, told the court Tues­day that the “prob­lem is the Leg­is­la­ture doesn’t lis­ten to them.”

“The mag­ni­tude of the so­lu­tion needs to meet the mag­ni­tude of the prob­lem,” Rupe added.

So­lic­i­tor Gen­eral Stephen McAl­lis­ter, ar­gu­ing for the state, in­sisted that “there’s a lot of new money go­ing into the sys­tem.”

Jus­tice Dan Biles noted that the Leg­is­la­ture pledged ad­di­tional fund­ing nearly a decade ago but fell short, adding that the sug­gested for­mula adds only fund­ing that al­ready had been promised af­ter a 2005 rul­ing by the court.

“This just looks like deja vu all over again,” Biles said.

The in­come-tax in­crease en­acted by law­mak­ers over Repub­li­can Gov. Sam Brown­back’s veto is ex­pected to raise $1.2 bil­lion over two years, but much of the new funds will go to pre­vent bud­get short­falls through June 2019.

The court has ruled pre­vi­ously that the state con­sti­tu­tion re­quires leg­is­la­tors to fi­nance a suit­able ed­u­ca­tion for ev­ery child. In past hear­ings, jus­tices have ag­gres­sively ques­tioned at­tor­neys on both sides but have not been shy about chal­leng­ing the state’s ar­gu­ments.

Lawyers for the Dodge City, Hutchin­son, Wi­chita and Kansas City, Kan., school dis­tricts have ar­gued that law­mak­ers fell at least $600 mil­lion short of ad­e­quately fund­ing schools over two years. They also ques­tion whether the state can sus­tain the spend­ing promised by the new law, even with an in­come-tax in­crease en­acted this year.

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