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Kansas Court OKs School Funding Law But Keeps Lawsuit Open

Christopher Sessums
flickr Creative Commons

The Kansas Supreme Court signed off Friday on an increase in spending on public schools that the Democratic governor pushed through the Republican-controlled Legislature, but the justices refused to close the protracted education funding lawsuit that prompted their decision.

The new school finance law boosted funding roughly $90 million a year and was enacted in April with bipartisan support. The court ruled that the new money was enough to satisfy the Kansas Constitution but also said it was keeping the underlying lawsuit open to ensure that the state keeps its funding promises.

"The State has substantially complied with our mandate," the court said in its unsigned opinion, referencing a decision last year that the state wasn't spending enough.

Gov. Laura Kelly had hoped the Supreme Court would end the lawsuit, which was filed by four local school districts in 2010. The districts' attorneys argued the new law would not provide enough new money after the 2019-20 school year and wanted the court to order additional increases.

"Today is a great day for Kansas and for our kids," Kelly said in a statement. "Educating our kids is not just one of the best ways to address challenges facing our state, it's also our moral and constitutional obligation.

"Funding our schools is about more than money and lawsuits. It's about our kids, their hopes and dreams, and the future of Kansas. Investing in our children's education is the best investment we can make ... "

Kansas spends more than $4 billion a year on its public schools about $1 billion more than it did during the 2013-14 school year because of the court's decisions. Some Republican lawmakers, particularly conservatives, have complained that the court has infringed on lawmakers' power under the state constitution to make spending decisions.

Two justices made comments during a hearing in May that suggested they were looking for a way to end the case. Justice Eric Rosen asked from the bench, "Where does this ever end?"

But Justice Dan Biles, a former State Board of Education attorney, told the state's solicitor general that the four districts sued after lawmakers "reneged" on funding promises and, "I don't have a lot of sympathy for the idea of dismissing this lawsuit."

Keeping the case open makes it easier for the districts to pursue complaints that the state has broken its promises. They would not have to file a new lawsuit and go through a lower-court trial before seeking relief from the state's highest court.

The school funding decisions made the court a political issue, helping to fuel the rise of unsuccessful campaigns by conservatives in 2014 and 2016 to remove six of the seven justices. Four of those justices were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and the other two, by moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves. The seventh justice was appointed by conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

The Supreme Court ruled previously that under the Kansas Constitution, the state must spend enough money and distribute the dollars fairly enough to finance a suitable education for every child. In an order last year, the court said a 2018 law promising future spending increases wasn't sufficient because it did not properly account for inflation.

This year's law contained Kelly's proposal for an inflation adjustment, which was based on recommendations from the Republican-controlled state school board. She and other state officials hoped the broad, bipartisan support for the measure would win over the court.

The four school districts argued that the state botched what was a straightforward math problem. They contend the solution requires increasingly larger amounts of money each year through the 2022-23 school year. Under their calculations, the increase for that year would be about $360 million instead of the roughly $90 million under Kelly's proposal.