Judges Push Back On School Finance Law

By John Celock

The Kansas Supreme Court pushed back against the state’s new school finance law during oral arguments Tuesday, potentially setting the stage for another legislative session devoted to the subject.

Justices pushed back at attorneys for the state, questioning whether the newly adopted law provided enough state funding for equity in education statewide, along with whether provisions allowing for school districts to use local funding to supplement state dollars would allow for equity. The hearing is the latest in the ongoing school finance case that has dominated Kansas politics for years and was part of the crafting of a new school finance formula during this year’s legislative session.

“This was an effort by the Legislature to target funds to the students that this court identified,” former Senate Vice President Jeff King, an attorney for state lawmakers, argued to the court.

Justices questioned King and state Solicitor General Stephen McAllister over whether the formula, which includes several hundred million dollars in new school funding, would meet the constitutional equity standard. The questions included specifically drilling down into provisions in the law that allowed school districts to use the local option budget to supplement funding from the state for districts.

McAllister said that the law recognized that each school district in the state may want to run the system differently and voters in school districts would want to have different programs in place. He said that the state’s overall school standards would apply statewide with a variety of local options.

“There may be some variances in the school district preferences and the voters’ preferences,” McAllister said.

McAllister and King also argued that the new formula was meant to be reworked over time and that the state would be willing to come back to the court next year to show that more funding was being placed into the education budget. McAllister said that lawmakers wanted to avoid placing the court into a supervisory role over state schools and school finance issues.

King stressed a variety of items the school finance law addressed including using funding for at-risk students for at-risk students and fully funding all day kindergarten statewide.

Alan Rupp, the attorney for the school districts fighting the state, argued that the formula underfunded schools and did not provide equity for school children under the state constitution. He argued that the formula needed more funding to fully meet the equity standard that has been part of the long-standing case.

Rupp told the court that the state has not met a constitutional standard for education funding since 2009.

The school finance case has long dominated Kansas politics, following cuts by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D). The case has in recent years been focused on the 2015 decision by Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and conservative Republicans in the state Legislature to replace the school finance law with a block grant system. The Supreme Court ruled the block grant system unconstitutional and had threatened to close state schools if a new formula was not adopted by June 30. Lawmakers – led by moderate Republicans – drafted a new formula similar to the one discarded in 2015 with fights over how much money was needed to fund the plan.

Legislative Democrats have argued that the formula is not fully funded and have predicted that the Supreme Court would order lawmakers to put more money into the plan to achieve equity. Such a ruling could bring lawmakers back into special session this year in order to develop a new funding plan. A new funding plan would also require either new revenue streams for the state or budget cuts in other areas.

The court has accepted the school funding formula until a final decision is issued.