Politics & Government

What you need to know about today's court showdown over Kansas school funding

The Kansas Supreme Court
The Kansas Supreme Court

A new law to boost spending on Kansas schools faces its toughest test on Tuesday, when attorneys battle at the state’s highest court over whether it is constitutional.

If the Kansas Supreme Court approves the plan — which would boost annual spending by $500 million in five years — a years-long lawsuit over state funding for public schools could be over.

But if the court rejects it, lawmakers may be back for a special session. The justices could even block funding for schools until the Legislature comes up with a new solution. That could effectively close schools.

Here’s what else you need to know.

What exactly is happening today?

The Kansas Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments over the new school funding law, called SB 423. The arguments begin at 9 a.m. in the Supreme Court chamber in the Judicial Center in Topeka.

The Kansas attorney general’s office is defending the law for the state. Solicitor General Toby Crouse will speak on its behalf.

Each side gets one hour.

A group called Schools for Fair Funding is challenging the new law. The group is made up of several school districts, including Wichita, who sued several years ago over funding in a lawsuit called Gannon. Typically, attorney Alan Rupe has argued on behalf of the group.

What’s the super-short version of the arguments?

At the most basic level, the sides disagree on how much funding Kansas schools need to meet the state constitution’s requirement for “suitable provision” for education. The constitution doesn’t define what that means, leaving it up for interpretation.

Schools for Fair Funding says the new funding law doesn’t add nearly enough money.

At the end of five years, annual school spending will be roughly $500 million higher than it is today. The group contends the law still falls up to $1.5 billion short.

On the other hand, the attorney general’s office says the funding boost in the law is massive and exceeds the constitution’s requirements.

Other possible issues in the law include how funding is distributed among wealthy and poorer districts.

How much more funding does my school district get?

The funding law affects each district differently, but here are the projected increases next year for some districts.

Wichita, $18.3 million

Andover, $1.8 million

Derby, $2.5 million

Goddard, $1.7 million

Haysville, $2.3 million

Maize, $2.5 million

Valley Center, $1.1 million

Can the state afford this?

Lawmakers relied on projections showing the state taking in hundreds of millions more than it spends over the next couple of years. It is unclear whether the state can pay for the final years of the plan without spending or revenue adjustments.

Wasn’t there an $80 million error?

The school funding bill was approved with an error that would have resulted in districts receiving about $80 million less than expected in the first year of the plan. Lawmakers passed a second bill correcting it.

How can I follow along on Tuesday?

You can watch the oral arguments live at www.kscourts.org.

Also follow reporters Jonathan Shorman and Hunter Woodall on Twitter: @jonshorman and @HunterMw

Kansas.com will have full coverage during and after the arguments.

What happens after today?

The Supreme Court has given itself until June 30 to rule. It is possible it will issue a decision before then, however.

Its decision will likely come in the form of an opinion on whether the law meets the requirements of the state’s constitution. If the court finds the law unconstitutional, the opinion would also likely provide a timeline for how long the Legislature has to fix any issues and what would happen if it doesn’t.

If the court approves the law, it could still retain jurisdiction over the lawsuit for several years to ensure lawmakers fully fund the plan.

USD 259 superintendent John Allison discusses Thursday's ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court on school financing. (Video by Bo Rader / The Wichita Eagle / March 2, 2017)

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman