Political News

Kansas Supreme Court asked to order boost in aid for schools

Posted September 17

— Four local school districts are asking the Kansas Supreme Court to order the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more per year on public schools, in a legal dispute that is shaping state politics and threatening Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's tax-cutting legacy.

The justices plan to hear arguments Wednesday from attorneys on whether the Legislature is fulfilling a duty under the state constitution to finance a suitable education for every child. The districts' attorneys argue that Kansas could afford to boost its aid if lawmakers reversed big income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging as an economic stimulus.

Previous high court rulings against the state have been strongly criticized by conservative GOP legislators and have helped fuel an effort to oust four of the seven justices in November. The high court's decision on school funding isn't expected until after the election.

What to know about school funding in Kansas:

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ONGOING LAWSUITS

The case before the state's highest court was filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts.

The justices focused previously on ensuring that the state distributes its nearly $4.1 billion a year in aid to its 286 school districts fairly, so that poor schools don't lag too far behind wealthier ones. Changes made by legislators in June satisfied the high court on "equity" issues, so it is now considering whether the state spends enough money overall.

Kansas has been in and out of lawsuits over education funding for decades. Many educators argue that the state's spending remains far short of what's necessary to ensure that all children get a suitable education.

Also, many educators were frustrated that Brownback and his legislative allies opted for big personal income tax cuts instead of extra school spending, only to see budget problems follow the tax reductions.

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POTENTIAL PRICETAGS

State officials and attorneys have multiple estimates for the increases required to meet a ruling against the state. They start at $430 million a year, a boost of more than 10 percent.

The State Board of Education recently proposed phasing in an $893 million increase over two years. And John Robb, an attorney for the districts suing the state, said the potential increase could be as high as $1.4 billion a year.

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BACKLASH AGAINST THE COURT

The state's attorneys argued in a court filing last month that school funding issues are political questions left to the Legislature, absent arbitrary or irrational decisions.

And Republican legislative leaders have argued for years that the court does not have the authority to tell lawmakers how much money to spend on public schools.

Past rulings against the state — requiring more spending — are among the reasons GOP conservatives are trying to oust four of the seven justices this year.

Justices are appointed by the governor, but every six years they face a statewide yes-or-no vote on whether they should remain on the bench. Voters will decide this year whether to keep Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justices Dan Biles, Carol Beier, Marla Luckert and Caleb Stegall.

Stegall is Brownback's only appointee and not a target. Nuss and Luckert were appointed by moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves. Biles and Beier were named to the court by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who also appointed the court's other two members.

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REACTION TO BROWNBACK

Brownback's fiscal policies and concerns about schools also have spurred a backlash this year against his legislative allies. Fourteen GOP conservatives lost their legislative seats in the August primary, and Democrats are looking to cut into Republican supermajorities in November.

If Democrats gain enough seats, they and moderate Republicans could have working majorities in both chambers as lawmakers determine how to respond to a Supreme Court order.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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