Topeka — In a historic challenge of the state school-finance law, two starkly different pictures of public schools emerged during oral arguments Monday before the Kansas Supreme Court.
Under the state's version, Kansas schools are doing a good job producing students with test scores that exceed the national average.
No need for the courts to get involved, state attorneys argued, because the Legislature is meeting its constitutional duty to fund schools at an adequate level.
"All the plaintiff schools are presently able to meet the statutory and regulatory requirements imposed by the Legislature," said Dan Biles, an attorney representing the State Board of Education.
But Alan Rupe, an attorney representing districts with high concentrations of students with special needs, argued, "Averages hide the problem."
Rupe said Kansas schools had been plagued by an achievement gap related to how the school-finance formula shortchanges districts with high minority populations in relation to richer school districts.
Now, because of years of political impasse on school funding before the Legislature, the finance problems have extended statewide, he said.
The scheduled one-hour oral arguments lasted one hour and 45 minutes as all seven justices on the court asked numerous questions.
Chief Justice Kay McFarland said the case would be put on the "front burner."
"This is a case of major significance, not only for now but for many years to come for the state of Kansas," McFarland said at the conclusion of the hearing, which was attended by a packed crowd of about 175 people. The proceedings were broadcast over the Internet, a first for the court.
Officials said the earliest the court would rule on the school funding lawsuit is Oct. 15.
At the heart of the dispute is whether the Legislature is making "suitable provision" for schools, as the constitution requires, and whether the funding is distributed in an equitable manner.
After an eight-day trial in 2003, Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock said Kansas failed on both counts and was in "blatant" violation of the constitution.
The school-funding formula allowed disparities from one school district to another of up to 300 percent in per-pupil funding, and Bullock cited a study, commissioned by the Legislature, that said Kansas schools, which currently receive about $2.7 billion annually in state aid, required an additional $1 billion.
The state appealed, saying disparities in funding were for the most part justified, and if unfair, they weren't unconstitutional. State attorneys also argued that the consultant study by Augenblick & Myers was a policy-research tool, not a definitive statement about education costs.
The arguments were repeated Monday, but justices wanted answers.
"What is suitable?" McFarland asked.
"That's the $64,000 question," replied Curtis Tideman, another attorney representing the state.
How will the Legislature know how much to fund schools "if we don't know what education costs?" Justice Donald Allegrucci asked.
"Do you think we have to define what is suitable?" Justice Robert Davis asked. Rupe answered yes; state attorneys said no.
Much of the legal arguments focused on money, with state attorneys downplaying the significance of the size of state appropriations.
"The constitutional question is not whether more money can improve our schools," Biles said.
But Rupe disagreed.
In Dodge City, 77 percent of the students require special instruction, yet the per-pupil appropriation in Dodge City is less than the nearby and more affluent Fowler district, Rupe said.
Dodge City school Supt. Gloria Davis also attended the hearing. "Money does make a difference," Davis told reporters later. "Kids who have higher needs need additional services."
Breaking out minority racial and ethnic groups showed much lower test scores and much higher dropout rates, Rupe argued.
"We just simply aren't equipping these kids," he said.
Improving this situation will require money, Rupe said. "We have to raise the valleys to the mountain tops."
|The earliest the Kansas Supreme Court will rule on the school funding lawsuit is Oct. 15.If justices order the Legislature to revamp the school-finance formula, the earliest the issue would be taken up is next January.|
But Biles and Tideman argued the achievement gap wasn't a sign that the system was unconstitutional and pointed to statistics that showed that gap narrowing.
After the arguments, state Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, who was one of a handful of legislators who attended the hearing, said he wanted the court to rule the school-finance system unconstitutional and tell the Legislature what to do.
"I'm hopeful the court will give some specific direction that will force the Legislature to act this session," Davis said. "The current school-finance formula is clearly inequitable. It is not addressing the needs of schools with at-risk students," he said.
But Larry Geil, superintendent of the Axtell school district, said he feared if the court overturns the school finance system, his and other small districts might be forced to shut down or consolidate.
"I don't know that it takes Big Brother in Topeka to tell them when to close schools," said Geil, who is a member of group of more than 100 small districts called Schools For Quality Education.