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Archive for Monday, August 6, 2001

Inaction bolsters school fight

Attorney calls Legislature’s failure to properly fund schools a ‘blessing in disguise’

August 6, 2001

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— Education leaders were upset when the Legislature approved only a minimal increase in public school funding last session.

But an attorney for schools suing the state over its education finance method said the Legislature's failure to properly fund schools is a blessing in disguise.

Alan Rupe of Wichita, who represents 14 mid-size school districts, said the Legislature's action will help the schools argue in court that the school-finance system discriminates against minorities.

"The fact that the Legislature has made the situation worse has made this a better lawsuit," Rupe said.

And while lawmakers rejected a tax increase last session for public schools, they may be forced to reverse that decision after the courts act on the Kansas school-finance system, Rupe said.

Kansas' system of funding schools is being challenged in state and federal courts.

The state lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial on Dec. 3 in Topeka, six weeks before the start of the 2002 legislative session.

"The trial in state court will be breathing down their (lawmakers') necks, and they will know during the session whether they have to deal with changing this crummy funding formula," Rupe said.

In the federal lawsuit, a judge has ruled that the state can be sued in U.S. District Court over the school funding issue. The state has appealed, and both sides are scheduled to make oral arguments Sept. 11 before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Both lawsuits allege that the method of state funding of schools is unconstitutional because smaller districts, which have mostly white students, receive an unfair share of state money compared with mid-sized and some large districts, which have more minority students and students with disabilities.

Wealthy districts also can supplement their state funds through local taxes unavailable to poor districts, according to the lawsuits. In some districts, per pupil funding is nearly three times that of other high-minority districts.

State officials have claimed that the disparities in funding are not set up to intentionally discriminate but are simply because small districts have higher-than-average costs. For example, they need teachers even if they are teaching just a handful of students.

The lawsuit seeks a more uniform and adequate funding method to replace the reliance on local taxes, and a reduction in the amount of extra funds given to small districts.

"The gap between small schools and urban areas continues to grow with the Legislature's inaction," Rupe said.

In testimony to various committees, the schools suing the state have proposed spending increases in the $300 million range. Other school groups have called for a $650 million increase. Last year, schools received a $67 million increase, which included a $50 increase in state aid per pupil.

"I don't think you can skin this cat without a tax increase," Rupe said.

Gov. Bill Graves has favored a tax increase, but his fellow Republicans, House Speaker Kent Glasscock of Manhattan and Senate President Dave Kerr of Hutchinson, have refused to go along.

In a recent talk with reporters, Kerr said the state will win the school-finance lawsuits and that the districts involved in the litigation will be sorry they spent money on the challenges.

Rupe disagreed. And, he said, the Legislature's recent inability to start a study on determining the cost of a "suitable" education in Kansas shows that lawmakers are not serious about dealing with the issue.

The Legislature appropriated $225,000 for the study that was to be done by the start of the 2002 session and used during the debate on school finance. But the study has been delayed and may not be complete until the end of the session.

Graves also recently chided lawmakers for failing to grapple with the school-funding issues. "I'll probably be gone by the time they get around to having to swallow this bullet," said Graves who will leave office in 2003. "There is going to be a regret that people didn't take the problem more seriously" during the past session, he said.

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