TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas’ highest court was openly skeptical Wednesday that the cash-strapped state provides every public school student a suitable education, though one justice suggested a way to fix the problem without the big, across-the-board funding increase desired by many educators.
The state Supreme Court heard arguments from the state and four local districts in a lawsuit filed by the districts in 2010. The six-year legal dispute has pitted the seven justices, six of whom were appointed by Democratic or moderate Republican governors, against GOP conservatives controlling the rest of state government.
The state spends more than half of its tax dollars, nearly $4.1 billion a year, on aid to its 286 school districts. Alan Rupe, an attorney for the four districts suing the state, said funding needs to jump roughly $800 million a year, or 20 percent, for legislators to fulfill a duty under the state constitution to provide a suitable education for every child.
The state can’t afford even a fraction of that increase without reconsidering Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s fiscal policies. The GOP-dominated Legislature slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 as an economic stimulus at his urging, and Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since.
Five of the seven justices peppered state Solicitor General Stephen McAllister with questions as he argued that Kansas has a good education system and that legislators could rationally decide that higher spending isn’t needed. Rupe argued that data from the state’s standardized English and math suggests that between a third and half of the state’s students are struggling.
Justice Dan Biles suggested that if the Supreme Court agrees with Rupe’s assessment, its order might have to be targeted to helping children who have fallen behind because “that’s where the problem is.”
“We have to make sure the remedy is aimed at the cancer,” said Biles, an attorney for the State Board of Education before joining the court in 2009.
Biles also said the Legislature would have the discretion to “cannibalize” existing funds for programs for students who are flourishing to help struggling ones. McAllister told the court that his hometown schools in Lawrence could redirect funds from Advanced Placement courses.
Rupe and Wichita Superintendent John Allison rejected the idea after the hearing.
“You have to lift the whole boat,” Allison told reporters. “You cannot cannibalize from one group of students.”
The districts suing the state are Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas. More than 70 percent of their students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, giving them more at-risk students than 90 percent of all districts in the state.
A lower-court panel ruled previously that the state’s overall spending was hundreds of millions of dollars short of being adequate; the state appealed. The Supreme Court is not expected to issue its ruling until after the November election.
As Rupe argued for additional funding, his granddaughter, Katelyn, a Salina fourth-grader, was in the audience.
“I’d like her generation to graduate in an adequately funded system,” Rupe told the justices.
In questioning McAllister, the justices echoed the districts’ arguments that new standardized math and English tests last year suggested a majority of Kansas students aren’t on track to be ready for college.
The state’s lawyers countered by noting that Kansas ranks among the top 10 states in the nation in graduation rates.
“Is the measure state comparison, or how students are actually doing?” Justice Eric Rosen said. “If we’re comparing well with the country that might be a measure that the country’s not doing so well.”
When McAllister suggested that money is not necessarily crucial in how well students perform, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss asked him whether he had any examples of districts seeing stagnant or lower scores after an infusion of state aid. McAllister said he’s sure there are examples of stagnant scores but couldn’t immediately cite any.
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