It's comforting to know that the justices on the Kansas Supreme Court have many of the same questions that Kansas taxpayers have about the state's school finance system.
During Thursday's oral arguments, justices grilled attorneys representing the state and those representing clients who claim the state's public school funding is inadequate. Their queries seemed to display some of the same ambivalence that afflicts other Kansas residents.
The purpose of Thursday's hearing was to determine whether the three-year school finance plan approved by the Kansas Legislature is enough to fulfill lawmakers' constitutional duty to provide adequate funding for K-12 schools in the state. Last year, the court ordered legislators to conduct a study and approve school funding that represents the actual costs of educating Kansas youngsters.
The legislators' study said school funding should be increased by $400 million for next year. Legislators approved a $466 million increase but spread it over three years, increasing next year's funding by just $194.5 million. Although legislators saw that as an appropriate amount, it doesn't conform to the study, which was intended to provide the new basis for the actual costs of education.
In two questions to opposing sides on the case, the Supreme Court's newest member, Justice Eric Rosen, seemed to sum up the questions nagging many Kansans.
Speaking to an attorney trying to justify the Legislature's action as a good faith effort on school finance, 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?"
What is that number, many Kansans wonder? Is there such a thing as an objective, accurate measure of what it costs to educate a Kansas student? Or is it appropriate to make a political decision that balances the needs of Kansas students against the many other needs facing Kansas taxpayers.
Then, addressing the attorney whose clients filed the initial lawsuit that accused the state of inequitable funding and triggered this debate, Rosen asked, "Where does this end?" As academic standards rise, he noted, the entire state budget could be consumed by education costs.
Many Kansans are supportive of increased funding for public schools, but that doesn't mean they don't recognize that there's a limit. How much money do Kansas schools need? The answer many Kansans would give is "more." But how much more? As much as it takes or as much as the state can afford?
The state Supreme Court hasn't indicated when it plans to rule on the school finance case. Supreme Court justices don't get where they are without being able to dissect arguments, examine nuances and draw difficult lines. Most Kansans would agree, finding the line on school finance that is both constitutional and realistic is no small order.