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Kansas' top court hears potentially costly school aid case

Posted 3:27 a.m. Wednesday
Updated 3:29 a.m. Wednesday

— Attorneys for cash-strapped Kansas are trying to persuade a state Supreme Court not to order hundreds of millions of dollars in additional aid each year for schools.

But lawyers for four poorer school districts, who will present arguments before the court Wednesday, say they are confident the judges will side with them. The Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts filed their lawsuit in 2010. 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.

The four districts contend in part that legislators aren't providing enough aid to schools to fulfill a duty under the state constitution to give every child a suitable education. The six-year legal dispute has pitted the seven court justices — six of whom were appointed by Democratic or moderate Republican governors — against conservative Republicans, who control the rest of state government.

The high court has reviewed the case multiple times and directed legislators to increase funding for poor districts so they don't fall too far behind wealthier ones. But the high court is now considering whether the state's nearly $4.1 billion in annual aid to its 286 school districts is sufficient — or as much as $1.4 billion a year short.

The state's lawyers argue that Kansas has a good public education system and total spending is a political issue left to legislators unless their decisions are irrational or arbitrary. Attorney General Derek Schmidt said before Wednesday's argument that the court should avoid becoming a "super-Legislature" enmeshed in the details of school funding.

"That's clearly not what the constitution contemplates," Schmidt said in an Associated Press interview. "It doesn't contemplate that the courts are going to be ultimate arbiters of what the school funding system has to look like."

A ruling isn't expected until after the November election. Education officials and the school districts' lawyers said a decision against the state could cost Kansas from $430 million to $1.4 billion annually.

The districts' attorneys argue that the state could afford additional spending if Republican legislators hadn't slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013. Brownback pushed the tax cuts as an economic stimulus, but the state has struggled to balance its budget since.

The districts' attorneys also argue that the state's own data from new standardized English and math tests last year undercuts arguments that Kansas is spending enough on its public schools. The state reported in November that a majority of students weren't on track to be ready academically for college based on their scores on spring tests.

"It's pretty obvious what the court is going to do," said John Robb, one of the districts' attorneys. "They're going to say it's unconstitutional, and the Legislature needs to fix it."

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

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