Kansas Supreme Court justices appeared skeptical Tuesday that a new school funding plan offers enough money for education.
The justices at times appeared exasperated by arguments in favor of the formula, and by requests that the court wait potentially years to see whether the new law works.
Afterward, some lawmakers speculated about the possibility of a special session. They said it would be difficult to find more money for schools.
The Legislature passed, and Gov. Sam Brownback signed, a new funding formula in June. The formula gives schools overall about $195 million more in this budget year and about $290 million more in the year after that.
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The formula is also designed to better target funding for at-risk students.
But school districts suing the state say nearly $900 million more over two years is needed for funding to be adequate. That figure comes from a Kansas State Board of Education recommendation.
"Problem is the Legislature doesn't listen to them," said Alan Rupe, an attorney for the districts.
Solicitor General Stephen McAllister, arguing for the state, said the new law vastly improved on the previous way schools were funded.
"There's a lot of new money going into the system," he said.
After McAllister said the education system is always a work in progress, Justice Dan Biles suggested history may repeat itself. The Legislature promised additional funding nearly a decade ago only to fall short, he said.
"This just looks like déjà vu all over again," Biles said.
Biles suggested the formula is only adding funding that had already been promised after a 2005 court decision.
In that case, known as Montoy, the court ordered more than $800 million more for schools. The Legislature began adding funding, but stopped during the Great Recession and began cutting instead, eventually prompting the current lawsuit, known as Gannon.
Justice Eric Rosen also asked what assurances the court had that history won’t repeat itself. McAllister indicated the state would be open to having the court continue to oversee the case to make sure the Legislature funds the formula.
Rupe said it is imperative that the court keep the case open while the Legislature acts to ensure that lawmakers follow through on funding promises.
How much time?
Students falling behind in school were a point of concern for the court Tuesday.
A ruling from the court in March found Kansas had failed to teach roughly one-fourth of its public school students basic math and reading skills
"If we just consider African American and Hispanic high school students, we know from the record that more than half of them are below proficient in reading and math. What’s SB 19 do for them?" Biles asked about the legislation that included the new formula.
Jeff King, an attorney arguing in favor of the state and the formula, said the bill makes sure that money for at-risk students goes to them.
He also said later that it would take several years to see how the spending plan affects student outcomes.
"Give this bill time to work," King said.
But some of the justices suggested law makers had taken a long time on school finance.
"I just wonder if the plaintiffs have a point. You’re asking us to give another two or three years for things to play out when this lawsuit was filed in 2010," said Chief Justice Lawton Nuss.
More revenue could be tough
Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said he felt the Legislature had "met every one of their demands," when it comes to the formula. He said it would take several years to find out if the new formula works.
Lawmakers largely developed the formula within the last few months of the session this spring. They faced a June deadline set by the Supreme Court, which ruled in March that the previous funding system was inadequate.
Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, said he wasn’t impressed with the state’s arguments. He added that if the court requires additional funding, it will be challenging to find it.
Lawmakers in June passed income tax increases to generate about $1.2 billion over the next two years for the state’s general budget. A second round of tax hikes, or spending cuts, could prove politically difficult.
"It would be very tough because I think there’s still a lot of denial that it’s necessary," Rogers said of the need for additional school spending.
Talk of a special session
Denning said the state wouldn’t be able to raise taxes enough to pay for the increase the districts want.
"Your constituents wouldn't allow that. So you wouldn't want to cut Medicaid. I certainly don't want to cut Medicaid $600 million and take all the kids off Medicaid," Denning said. "I don't want to not pay the correction officers, so that's where it gets tough for a legislative body."
If the court rules that more funding is needed, Rupe told reporters that sooner is better. Quickly adding more funding would require a special legislative session.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, served on the House committee that helped craft the formula. She said she has always maintained the funding amounts were not enough, but indicated she would prefer that the court allows lawmakers to work during the regular session, which begins in January.
"To me, it makes more sense to give us some time to properly evaluate and do our jobs," Rooker said. "It’s not easy to raise the revenue needed."
Contributing: Hunter Woodall of the Kansas City Star