Politics & Government

Kansas school funding is adequate, high court says. But justices still will oversee case

Kansas public schools are finally constitutionally funded, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday after lawmakers battled for years over how many tax dollars should go toward education.

In a highly anticipated opinion, the court said $90 million in additional annual spending approved by the Legislature this spring brings Kansas into constitutional compliance. The decision comes nearly a decade after the filing of a lawsuit accusing the state of inadequate funding.

The court will continue to oversee the case, to ensure lawmakers follow through on promises to boost education dollars.

“It’s a victory for our kids, it’s a victory for our parents who fought day and night for their schools. It’s a victory for the advocates and teachers who worked tirelessly to hold leaders accountable on this important issue,” Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she was pleased the court had accepted the funding but disappointed it would retain jurisdiction.

“The Kansas Legislature must now make sure the additional funding delivers real results for our students,” such as improved graduation rates and readiness for college, technical schools or the workforce, Wagle said in a statement.

Lawmakers have struggled to find a way to fund public schools – and a dollar amount – that satisfied the Supreme Court.

The Kansas Constitution required the Legislature to make “suitable provision for the finance of the educational interests of the state.” The Supreme Court has interpreted that to require adequate and equitable funding.

This spring, the Legislature approved $90 million in additional annual spending to account for funding lost to inflation. The court found that with the additional funding the state had “substantially complied” with its previous decisions.

Friday marked the first time in the lawsuit the justices has signed off on all aspects of the Legislature’s funding plan.

Lawyer Alan Rupe called the ruling “the last skirmish in a 10-year-old battle.”

Rupe, who represented the plaintiff school districts, said he doesn’t think the new funding adequately accounts for inflation, but “we lost because they (the justices) considered what the state had done to be substantial compliance.”

“I put it in the category of we were right, but we lost,” he said.

But, Rupe added, the overall results show that since the lawsuit was filed in 2010, lawmakers have added more than $1 billion in annual funding. Kansas is already starting to see the results in students achievement and lower dropout rates, he said.

State Attorney General Derek Schmidt said he was relieved the lawsuit had ended and that it was now time “for a thoughtful conversation about whether this process we have witnessed over the past decade is really how Kansans want school finance decisions to be made.”

For years, some conservative Republicans have wanted to overhaul how Kansas selects its Supreme Court justices. They have pointed to the court’s actions in education as judicial overreach.

Right now, a committee of attorneys sends the governor a list of nominees. Republicans want any nominee to be confirmed by the Senate.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, called the court’s decision to retain jurisdiction over the case another attempt to grab power.

“The people must rise up and make their voices heard to fight against tyranny by this court,” she said in a statement.

But other lawmakers hailed the court’s decision to retain oversight. Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita and the ranking minority on the House Education Committee, said that will “ensure that the Republicans don’t change their minds next year.”

The current case, known as Gannon, followed up on an earlier case called Montoy where the Republican-controlled Legislature agreed to a funding increase, but then backed away when state finances soured.

Because the justices had released their jurisdiction over Montoy, the school districts had to start all over with new plaintiffs and an entirely new case.

“There’s a history of promises being made today not being fulfilled tomorrow,” Ward said. “So it’s very good the court’s retaining jurisdiction.”

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, who helped spearhead efforts to pass more funding said Republican lawmakers had hoped justices would release jurisdiction but that she isn’t surprised they didn’t.

“I think it’s their statement: ‘We will be watching, and making sure that what was signed into law this past spring really is going to be what is delivered to schools,’” Baumgardner said.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.