First Bell: School finance lawsuit decision looms

• We are now in the window when a decision in the school finance lawsuit, Gannon vs. Kansas, could come at any time.

When closing arguments in the case were held Aug. 29, Shawnee County District Judge Franklin Theis said to expect a decision, “within 60 to 90 days.” It has now been 62 days.

It may or may not matter that Theis, the presiding judge on a three-judge panel, is up for retention this year. But if he’s nervous about the political fallout from the decision, that could push a decision off until Nov. 7 at the earliest.

The lawsuit involves a group of school districts who sued in 2010, alleging that the legislature has violated its duty under the state constitution to make “suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

One thing about the case that is mystifying is how little attention it received in state legislative elections. Despite the fact that education funding has been a major issue in those races, almost nobody talked about this case and how it could determine what options are on the table.

At the heart of the case is what defines “suitable” school funding.

The plaintiffs argue that it’s the amount of money needed to meet all of the outcomes required by state and federal law. And by their calculation, current funding is about $1.5 billion a year short of where it should be.

That’s based on any of three different measures: taking the base funding level in 1992 when the current formula was devised and adjusting for inflation; updating the cost study done by the consulting firm Augenblick and Myers, which was used as the basis of the Kansas Supreme Court orders in the 2005 lawsuit, Montoy vs. Kansas; and updating a later cost study by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit.

That includes the state Quality Performance Accreditation system as well as the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Since the recession began in 2008-2009 and the state began slashing funding for schools, they argue, districts have been forced to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and eliminate programs specifically aimed at helping low-income, minority and other disadvantaged students, including non-English speaking students.

That, they say, has resulted in declining test scores for those students and widening achievement gaps, particularly in districts like Kansas City, Wichita and Dodge City.

Defense lawyers for the state, however, argued that “suitable” funding is merely the amount needed to provide all of the programs and services required by law.

By their analysis, all the schools operating in Kansas are accredited, meaning they must be meeting the requirements of state law. They all offer all the courses needed for a student to graduate high school and/or meet the qualified admissions standards for getting into a university. Their classes are taught by certified teachers. And they are accomplishing all that with the funding provided by the state. Therefore, the funding must be suitable.

The state also presented another interesting argument – one that has failed to gain traction in previous lawsuits, but which may be viewed differently this time, in light of more recent research. That is that there is no direct correlation between increasing school funding and increasing student performance on test scores.

The last time Kansas went through this, the Supreme Court ruled squarely in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the legislature to phase in an increase of about $750 million a year over the next three years. That led to a special session in 2005 and a dramatic showdown between the court and the Republican-led legislature.

The legislature eventually gave in, but not before the Court threatened to shut down the entire state school system if lawmakers refused to comply.

That may have been a classic case of how to win a battle but lose a war. Resentment over that decision still lingers among conservatives in the legislature. It’s one of the factors behind proposals that are sure to come up next year in the legislature to change the way appellate court judges are selected.

By most estimates, conservatives will have a much more commanding majority in the House and Senate after next week’s elections than they had during the Montoy case in 2005.

We’ll all have to wait and see whether that has made the judicial branch a little more gun-shy about getting into political showdowns with the legislature.

• The Lawrence High School debate squad had another good weekend last week.

The team of Charles Hopkins (senior) and Hannah Lee (junior) won the DeSoto Open tournament with an undefeated record.

Also winning medals at DeSoto was the team of Matt Mantooth (junior) and Ellis Springe (sophomore), who took fifth place with a 4-1 record.

Lawrence High won the team Sweepstakes Award, with a total of 14 wins.

At the Topeka West Invitational, sophomores Ellie Dunlap and Hayley Luna finished third in the open division with a 5-2 record. Freshmen Stefan Petrovic and Jesse Belt won the novice division with a 7-1 record.

And finally, at the Sumner Academy Novice Spooktacular, Kaitlyn Preut (freshman) and Dylan McManis (sophomore) placed fifth with a 4-1 record.

• The next pre-bond public input session with Lawrence school officials will be at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Tuesday) at Sunset Hill Elementary, 901 Schwarz Rd.

• Have news about a local school activity or event you’d like to share with the community? Call me at 832-7259, or email