Topeka The Kansas Supreme Court should dismiss the school finance lawsuit because the Legislature has increased funding by an unprecedented amount, attorneys for the state argued Thursday.
"The state has not only rendered the case moot, but it has substantially complied with the court's prior orders," Alok Ahuja, an attorney with Lathrop & Gage, told justices.
"Our Legislature has made a good-faith effort," said Stephen McAllister, a Kansas University law professor, who was made a special assistant to the attorney general for the day to help argue the state's case.
But the attorney representing property-poor school districts said the increase still falls short, and the way the funds are distributed promotes disparities.
"We're back because school funding remains inadequate, not equitable, and does not reflect the actual and necessary costs," said Alan Rupe, of Wichita.
After oral arguments, the court gave no indication when it would rule in the case.
At stake is the $3.1 billion funding method that supports the 450,000-student public school system.
In 2005, the state Supreme Court declared the system unconstitutional because it shortchanged all students, especially schools with high proportions of low-income students who brought the lawsuit in 1999.
The court accepted a $290 million increase after a special legislative session, as a down payment pending the outcome of a study showing the actual costs of providing an adequate education.
That study done by the Legislative Division of Post Audit recommended a $400 million increase for the next school year.
Last month, the Legislature approved a $466 million increase, but stretched that over three years with the first-year increase totaling $194.5 million. That measure, called Senate Bill 549, was before the court. Rejection of the bill by the court could force another special legislative session.
Justices attacked both sides of the issue during arguments that extended nearly an hour past the originally scheduled two hours.
Against the state, the justices questioned several positions.
Why didn't lawmakers abide by the cost study? What guarantee existed that future legislatures would fund the later years of the plan? Why should the court accept the state's numbers, which include state aid attached to local tax dollars that have never before been calculated in state school funding?
Several justices seemed to indicate that the case should be sent back to a lower court so lawmakers and officials could be cross-examined as to how the cost study was done and why certain parts of it were ignored.
Speaking to Ahuja about the recent school funding increases, Justice Eric Rosen said, "You've called it massive, you've called it unprecedented, but you haven't told us how the Senate bill relates to necessary and actual costs?"
Ahuja said the cost study should be seen as a guide to the Legislature and not a requirement for a certain amount of funding. Dan Biles, an attorney representing the State Board of Education, dismissed education cost studies in general, saying they are "something close to alchemy."
McAllister said equity in funding and providing enough to cover the actual costs of an education "are not themselves constitutional standards."
He said the court should give "deference" to the Legislature because lawmakers have competing demands for funds and represent the voters.
Justice Marla Luckert asked McAllister how the state would respond when a child's educational needs weren't met.
"Is it just 'trust me'?" she asked.
Plaintiffs also grilled
But justices also questioned Rupe.
"Where does this end?" Rosen asked. As academic standards increase, the entire state budget could be consumed by education funding, he said.
Rupe said the Legislature was "heading in the right direction, but they haven't arrived." He said an additional $1 billion was needed over the next three years.
What about the argument that the Legislature has to balance competing needs, asked Justice Robert Davis.
"The last time I looked at the Kansas Constitution, I didn't see a provision dealing with equipment and machinery," Rupe said referring to a $600 million tax break that lawmakers just gave to businesses.
More about school finance
- Webcast of live arguments before the Kansas Supreme Court (requires Windows Media Player)
- Brief of the Montoy suit (.pdf)
- Timeline of events in school finance lawsuit
- 6News video: School finance bill to face court
- Plaintiffs: School finance bill fails grade (06-13-06)
- State wants high court to dismiss school suit (06-02-06)
- Legislature approves school finance plan (05-10-06)
- Chat with Bob Corkins, Kansas Education Commissioner (02-02-06)
- House roll call on $148.4 million school finance plan (07-07-05)
- Supt. Weseman's contingency plan (07-06-05)
- More about school finance »
- Conference Committee on Senate Bill 549
- House bill info
- Senate bill info
- Kansas public schools cost study
- Kansas public schools cost study executive summary
- Public Education Finances 2004 (.pdf)
- Senate roll call on $148.4 million school finance plan
- Supreme Court's Show Cause Order (07-02-05)
- Supreme Court's Order Denying Extension (.pdf)
- Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 1603 (.pdf)
- Supplemental Note on Resolution No. 1603 (.pdf)
Rupe said the Legislature failed to comply with the court order requiring the actual cost of education be part of any school finance plan. In addressing the needs of students at risk of failing and those who don't speak English, the new law comes in anywhere from one-fourth to one-half of what the cost study said was needed, he said.
But Chief Justice Kay McFarland said there was no way schools could absorb the amount of money Rupe wanted in a short period of time.
After the arguments, interested parties in the case interpreted the justices' questions differently.
"The court is looking for a way to extricate themselves from this litigation," said Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, and vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
But House Education Committee Chairman Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said it was difficult to predict what the court would do based on their questions.
"They are trying to challenge each side," O'Neal said, though, he added, the court seemed to be searching for "light at the end of the tunnel."
State Board of Education member Bill Wagnon, a Democrat from Topeka, whose district includes Lawrence, said the justices "are looking for a workable solution."
Lawrence school board president Leonard Ortiz said he hoped the court would accept the law as a temporary fix and maintain jurisdiction in the case.
"The bill really doesn't address the two studies that the Legislature has done on actual costs," Ortiz said, referring to this year's cost study and one made by a consultant in 2002.
"The court should look at this as short-term and hopefully direct the Legislature to come back and look for a more long-term solution," Ortiz said.
School board member Craig Grant said school districts would like the case to be settled, but that more funding is needed.
"There are some big-ticket items we'd like to accomplish so we can do a better job for kids, but this bill doesn't provide enough," he said.