TOPEKA — More than $500 million in education cuts have left Kansas public schools so underfunded that the state no longer meets its obligations to students and public school districts under the state constitution, a lawyer said Monday.
Wichita attorney Alan Rupe represents 32 students and 54 school districts — including the Wichita district — in a lawsuit filed in 2010 that accuses the state of reneging on its promises to adequately fund public education.
"The kids that are disadvantaged in Kansas don't have to be," Rupe said in his opening remarks in Shawnee County District Court. "(Providing quality education to all) has been done when there have been resources to do it."
Rupe said schools and teachers had been making progress in improving student performance and reducing achievement gaps until the state started to reduce spending on public schools three years ago, stunting those efforts.
"They're doing the best with what they've got," he said. "But it's at a point where it's simply unconstitutional."
As in 2003, the plaintiffs charge that the state is in violation of Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, which requires that legislators make "suitable provision" for education funding. Rupe's take is that the article requires a level of funding that allows for an ever-improving education system.
The state contends that current funding levels are constitutional and the Legislature has the right to set funding levels based on available state revenues.
Arthur Chalmers, a Wichita attorney hired by Attorney General Derek Schmidt's office to represent the state, said legislators took necessary steps to maintain education funding while dealing with a struggling economy in recent years. He said legislators didn't "arbitrarily" target schools for spending reductions.
"The state's doing the best it can in difficult times," Chalmers said. "When the dust settles and the case is over, we think you will be able to say the Legislature had a reasonable basis."
The trial before a three-judge panel is expected to last three weeks.
It is the second time in a decade that the Kansas school finance formula has been subject to judicial scrutiny.
The last dispute resulted in legislators increasing school spending by nearly $1 billion, but state lawmakers began cutting back that funding when state revenues declined, and eventually school districts and parents filed the new lawsuit to compel the state to restore that funding. Any decision in the case will almost certainly be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.
Chalmers said legislators took steps to maintain education funding, which include using federal funds, increasing the state sales tax rate and allowing school districts to use certain reserve accounts for operational expenses.
He also said test results and accreditation reports indicate Kansas students are making progress toward state and national goals, including posting good scores on college entrance exams.
"The kids have not been left behind," Chalmers said.
Rupe said studies commissioned by legislators to determine the actual cost of providing an education say as much as $6,142 in base aid per student is needed to achieve desired results. Chalmers said those studies were flawed and based on old data.
Rupe focused much of his effort Monday on laying a foundation for his claims that school districts are required to meet state and federal standards that increase each year, regardless of what funding is provided.
He called Cynthia Lane, superintendent of Kansas City, Kan., public schools, as his first witness. She testified about demographics in the district, where nearly 88 percent of the 20,000 students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.
Lane said the high level of poverty, coupled with a high percentage of minorities and English language learners, presented challenges in educating students beyond just making passing grades for graduation.
"I want them to know they are ready," Lane said, adding that it was "morally the right thing to do" to give every student the tools to be prepared for college or the workforce when they leave high school.