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Kansas Supreme Court to announce ruling on school funding case Friday

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, March 6, 2014, at 1:04 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, June 11, 2014, at 5:30 p.m.

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A state Supreme Court decision that could change the future of school funding and the makeup of the courts in Kansas will be handed down Friday morning.

The court announced that at 9:30 a.m., it will release its anxiously awaited ruling in the so-called Gannon case. In that case, school districts from across Kansas have banded together to sue the state, alleging that budgets passed by the Legislature in recent years fail to meet the state’s constitutional duty to provide suitable funding for public education.

The decision could be a dud or dynamite, according to Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political science professor who’s been monitoring the case.

“If there’s no further money demanded by the court, then we have a dud” and the annual legislative session will just quietly wind down, he said.

“If there is a significant amount of money (ordered by the court), then boom goes the dynamite” and the session will essentially have to restart from zero, he said.

Last year, a special three-judge panel ruled in favor of the schools and said lawmakers needed to provide about $440 million more in funding to meet their constitutional mandate.

The state appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in October.

Far-reaching decision

Alan Rupe, the lawyer representing schools, contended that the Legislature’s own actions undercut its argument that the recession forced cuts in funding.

Rupe said lawmakers cut $511 million per year from the schools and at the same time passed an income tax cut worth $2.5 billion through 2018.

Stephen McAllister, a University of Kansas law professor representing state government, argued that the court lacks the authority to order the Legislature to pass increased funding.

He told the justices that “ultimately will undermine our system of government” in which the Legislature makes laws and the courts interpret them.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, a member of the House Education Budget Subcommittee, disputes that schools have been cut as much as they say they have, if at all.

While he acknowledges that base state aid has dropped since the recession, he said that doesn’t account for substantial increases in “weightings” – extra money districts get for harder-to-teach pupils including those who are low-income, at-risk of dropping out, or have physical or mental disabilities.

Fallout from a decision could have far-reaching consequences.

It is unclear whether the Legislature would comply with a court order or defy it, which could turn into a constitutional crisis. If lawmakers refuse to act, the court could hold the Legislature in contempt.

Abide or strike down?

The Legislature already has passed a law to try to pre-empt the court’s nuclear option of ordering the schools closed until suitable funding is passed. But it’s unknown whether the court would abide by that or strike down the law.

Huebert cautions calm and said he doesn’t think whatever happens will happen right away.

“Some people (in the Legislature) do not want to turn this into some kind of showdown with the court,” Huebert said.

Of the court, he said, “I think they will give this some time to work through the Legislature.”

Any substantive decisions might not come until next year, he said.

“We’ve been here eight weeks and we’ve got four weeks left before we wrap up,” Huebert said. “That (legislative response) is not going to happen in four weeks.”

He said he would support establishing a special committee to study all angles of school finance between now and the next session in January,

Some conservative lawmakers stand ready to respond to an adverse decision with proposed constitutional amendments that, if passed, would strip the court of any authority on school finance and/or change the process of selecting the justices.

“I would not be surprised if we see a constitutional amendment passed out of the House as a result of this, that would basically underscore who has the purse strings – the state Legislature,” said Rep. Jim Howell, R-Derby.

Public vote not a given

At present, Supreme Court justices are picked by the governor from among three nominees selected by an independent commission. Five of the commissioners are elected by the state’s lawyers and four are non-lawyers appointed by the governor.

The proposed alternative plan would have the governor appoint the justices with confirmation by the Senate. The thought is that would bring about a more conservative court over time because conservative Republicans hold the governor’s office and own a dominant majority in the Senate.

Amending the constitution would take a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Legislature and a vote of the electorate.

The conservative faction hasn’t found the votes to get the amendments through the House, but that could change depending on the outcome of the court’s decision.

However, the public vote would not necessarily be a foregone conclusion.

The national firm Public Policy Polling released a survey two weeks ago showing strong support for schools in the funding battle.

By a 59-29 spread, respondents to the PPP poll said they wanted the Supreme Court to increase money for schools. A similar majority said they think schools are underfunded.

The big decision

Gov. Sam Brownback linked the decision to his ongoing campaign to offer all-day kindergarten at every district in the state.

A court order for hundreds of millions of dollars more to schools could hurt his plan for all-day kindergarten, which carries a price tag of $80 million a year at the end of a five-year phase-in period.

“The centerpiece of my agenda for the 2014 legislative session is to increase Kansas’ investment in all-day kindergarten, which is long overdue and a true path forward,” the governor said in a statement.

Brownback’s Democratic challenger, House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence, issued a statement blaming the governor.

“Kansas parents, kids, teachers and business leaders don’t need a court order to tell us to fund our schools,” he said. “Providing our kids with a world-class public education is both a moral and constitutional obligation, which is why I offered a plan two years ago to restore school funding. Gov. Brownback rejected it.”

The state Board of Education and the Education Department also sent out a statement Thursday, expressing relief that the court decision is finally coming.

The state education officials “are encouraged that a decision is being made, alleviating the uncertainty lingering throughout our state’s education system and enabling us all to move forward with our work to educate the children of Kansas,” the statement said.

Contributing: Bryan Lowry and Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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