Topeka — Despite differences in funding and academic achievement, the state is meeting its constitutional duty to provide students with an opportunity to learn, attorneys told the Kansas Supreme Court on Monday. But an attorney representing those suing the state says the law discriminates against poor and minority students.
The state and the State Board of Education want the Supreme Court to overturn a lower-court ruling that Kansas spends too little money on its schools and distributes its dollars unfairly.
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See more past court rulings and find out more about the school finance issue
Today's hearing was followed closely by school administrators from around the state, many of whom watched the proceeding on a live Webcast. Among those watching were Lawrence school district administrators and school board members.
"I just don't know how far the court will go. I didn't get that out of there (watching the proceedings)," Supt. Randy Weseman said about the verbal arguments. "If they just redirect the Legislature to solve the problem, I'm not sure what that's going to do."
Administrators and parents in the Dodge City and Salina school districts, who sued the state in 1999, contend the ruling should stand because evidence shows that the state's formula hurts poor and minority students.
But attorneys for the state told the seven justices that local school districts have the responsibility to spend any money they receive appropriately -- and even districts critical of the formula provide a good education.
"The constitutional question is not whether more money can improve our schools," said Dan Biles, representing the State Board of Education. "The constitutional question is not whether there are significant challenges."
During the long-awaited hearing, lasting more than 90 minutes, the state and state board argued that a Dec. 11 ruling by Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock should be overturned.
Bullock found the school finance scheme was unconstitutional, ruling there was no rational basis for spending disparities among districts.
The Supreme Court could rule as early as Oct. 15, though many attorneys and education officials expect the court to take more time.
Biles argued that the plaintiffs cannot show beyond substantial doubt that the system is unconstitutional because the education those districts provide meet and even exceed standards set in state law and by the Board of Education. The Dodge City and Salina districts pay higher teacher salaries than other districts and have "state-of-the-art" buildings, he said.
But plaintiffs' attorney Alan Rupe said his clients have demonstrated that the finance formula distributes too much money to small rural districts at the expense of those with high concentrations of poor and minority students.
While courts defer to the Legislature on policy questions, "The line is drawn wide of any reasonable mark" under the school finance system, Rupe said.
And Hays Superintendent Fred Kaufman, who attended Monday's hearing, called Biles' arguments "shameful." Kaufman said his district increased class sizes, cut instructional time and denied its employees raises to deal with tight budgets.
"This is about failing our children," Kaufman said.
Rupe said scores on standardized tests that suggest the state or individual districts are doing well overall mask the struggles of poor and minority students.
"We have to stay awake at night and worry about, are we providing a suitable education to those kids who are falling through the cracks?" Rupe said.
Ideally, Rupe said, legislators should fix the flaws identified by Bullock and by a 2002 consultants' study.
Bullock gave legislators until July 1 to fix those problems. Though numerous plans were considered, they made no changes.
Curtis Tideman, representing the state, complained that Bullock's ruling "invades the policy-making function of the Legislature."
And justices questioned their role in defining a suitable education and whether they could hold legislators or the Board of Education accountable. As he has in the past, Rupe suggested appointing a special master -- which occurred in Arkansas.
The hearing was broadcast live over the Internet, with more than 350 computers logged on at one point. Outside the courtroom, crowds lined up for seats more than an hour before the hearing began.
Besides Monday's arguments, justices received a dozen briefs before the hearing, including ones from school districts, taxpayer organizations and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, founded by Jesse Jackson.