Politics & Government

Fate of Kansas school funding plan may hinge on Texas professor's study

The Kansas Supreme Court
The Kansas Supreme Court

How much money Kansas schools receive may hinge on how much faith the Kansas Supreme Court puts in a Texas professor’s study that recommends spending up to $2 billion more.

The court will decide whether a new law that phases in a $500 million increase for schools adequately funds education. Rejection of the law could lead to a special legislative session and potentially threaten current funding for schools.

Tuesday, the justices appeared skeptical of the state's plan, which spends significantly less than the study lawmakers commissioned from Texas A&M University professor Lori Taylor.

“Here you all are, always battling your own experts,” Justice Eric Rosen said.

When the Taylor study was commissioned, some lawmakers thought it would justify how much schools receive now. Instead, its pricey recommendations shocked lawmakers, and many rejected its findings as unaffordable.

The study was welcomed by school districts — including Wichita and Kansas City, Kan. — suing for additional funding. School attorneys made the study central to their case for throwing out the new funding law, called SB 423.

“Do you now give them yet another chance or do we declare what they have brought to you in light of what their own experts has told them is necessary is not constitutional?” school attorney Alan Rupe said.

Solicitor General Toby Crouse, who defended the law, distanced the Legislature and the spending plan from the Taylor study and said the plan will fund schools at levels the court found constitutional a decade ago.

“The legislation before this court does not attempt to, or purport to, reflect the Taylor study," Crouse said.

The study included several recommendations, including one that called for a $1.7 billion increase phased in over five years. Another was for more than $2 billion. Both would raise academic performance, the study said.

All scenarios called for a 95 percent graduation rate, up from Kansas' current rate of about 86 percent.

Crouse said the Taylor study used ambitious, “aspirational” federal academic standards and not standards that have been previously cited by the court. He said the state "would not like to be held to that standard."

The court has given itself a June 30 deadline to rule on the case. Many observers hope for an earlier decision. If the justices find significant problems in the law and call for immediate action, the Legislature may have to come back for a special session, perhaps in the middle of the summer campaign season.

Without a satisfactory plan, the court could block funding to schools until lawmakers approve a solution deemed constitutional. That would effectively close schools, a scenario Gov. Jeff Colyer and others say they want to avoid. But the court could also allow lawmakers to fix issues next year, avoiding the need for a special session.

After years of litigation, patience with the court and the school districts has worn thin for some lawmakers. A House committee this spring advanced a constitutional amendment that would have restricted future lawsuits.

And some lawmakers who have pushed for additional funding have questioned the positions of the districts that are suing.

“I suspect we have more work to do,” Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said. “But…I think the plaintiffs are becoming tone-deaf in some of what they’re asking for. I agree there’s room to improve but I don’t agree with taking the Taylor study as the gospel truth as written.”

Questions remain about the long-term affordability of the current funding plan. Projections from proponents of the law suggest the state may not be able to pay for all five years of the plan without adjustments in later years.

Kansas tax collections have exceeded expectations over the past several months, sometimes by large margins. Lawmakers could draw upon that extra revenue to increase funding if they’re called back for a special session.

But depending on how much more funding would be needed, lawmakers may be faced with the choice of cutting spending elsewhere or raising taxes.

“Well, how it’s done is not in my purview,” said Cynthia Lane, the retiring Kansas City, Kan., school district superintendent. “But the fact (is) that we know if we have more funding we can help all of our kids improve.”

Democrats have said the funding increase approved by the Legislature wasn’t enough. They wanted an increase of $800 million or more.

Some saw vindication in Tuesday’s arguments before the court.

“My guess going from here is the court will rule that it is inadequate and we (legislators) need to do more,” said Lynn Rogers, a Democratic state senator from Wichita who served four terms on the Wichita school board.. “Will it mean a special session, or will it mean something next year? I think that’s the real question.”

But conservatives have expressed disgust with the years-long court process. They say the court is overstepping its bounds.

"The decision on how much of your money Kansas schools receive will once again be left in the hands of a few unelected judges. This has to stop. Elected representatives should determine how much money is appropriated to Kansas schools," Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state and a Republican candidate for governor, said in a statement.

As he walked out of the courtroom, Attorney General Derek Schmidt said both sides had made their case.

“Ultimately the justices will have to decide whether the constitutional standard is met,” Schmidt said. “We think it is. They’ll make that decision, we hope, very timely.”