School finance case to have political consequences, experts say

There will be a lot more at stake than just money for public schools on Tuesday when the Kansas Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a constitutional lawsuit challenging the state’s school finance system.

According to political experts in Kansas, the case also could have far-reaching political consequences for the Kansas Legislature, Gov. Sam Brownback, and the Supreme Court itself.

“I think you’re heading for a constitutional showdown,” said Kansas University political science professor Burdett Loomis. “This is a rerun of what we did in 2005 and 2006.”

That was when the Court ruled in an earlier case, Montoy vs. Kansas, that the Legislature had violated its constitutional duty to make “suitable provision” for financing public schools. It ordered lawmakers to increase school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars a year, based on studies that it said reflected the actual cost of providing educational services in the state.

That led to a lengthy special session in the summer of 2005, when conservative Republicans who controlled the House at first refused to pass a bill to comply with the Court’s order. They argued that the Court had overstepped its bounds and that only the Legislature can decide how much money to appropriate.

At one point, the Court threatened to block the distribution of any money to local schools, which effectively would have shut down the state school system, until the Legislature complied with the order. Eventually, a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans overrode the conservative leadership and passed a bill that included the court-ordered funding.

Later, in the wake of the Great Recession, Kansas suffered a financial crisis beginning in 2008, prompting the state to make huge budget cuts across the board, including public school funding, virtually wiping out all of the increases that had resulted from the Montoy decision.

As a result, many of the same plaintiffs in the Montoy case filed the latest case, Gannon vs. Kansas. In January, a special three-judge panel that presided over the trial of that case ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered another massive increase in school spending.

But Loomis said the political landscape today is different than it was in 2005.

“Although the Legislature was reluctant, there were majorities and a governor (Democrat Kathleen Sebelius) who was pushing for it, so it worked out,” Loomis said. “This time you have a governor who is opposed, and a Legislature which is, if anything, more opposed.”

In addition, he noted that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, rather than proposing to restore school funding as the economy recovers, has made it his top priority to focus on large tax cuts.

“It’s really very similar to what you’re seeing at the national level,” Loomis said, referring the budget stalemate that has forced a partial shutdown of the federal government. “And you also have this antagonism toward government in general, antagonism toward the schools and antagonism toward the Court.”

Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University, agreed that if the pro-funding plaintiffs win again at the Supreme Court, it will likely result in another constitutional showdown between the Court and the Legislature.

And, like Loomis, he predicted that an unfavorable ruling for the state could lead to renewed calls for constitutional amendments that could take away the Court’s authority to review school funding levels, or even change the way Supreme Court justices are appointed.

But Rackaway said he thinks it’s more likely that Brownback and the Legislature will find some sort of compromise, possibly by shifting more of the burden for funding schools back to local districts.

Oral arguments at the Court are scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

The Court will offer live streaming video of the proceedings from its website.