Kansas Supreme Court turns attention to adequacy of school funding, sets date for arguments

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Marla Luckert, center, asks a question to the state as they make their arguments in front of the Kansas Supreme Court, Tuesday May 10, 2016, in Topeka, Kan. The court was hearing arguments Tuesday on whether the technical changes approved by lawmakers earlier this year are fair enough to poor districts that the justices can abandon a threat to shut down public schools. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

? With the issue of school funding equity now resolved, the Kansas Supreme Court is turning its attention to the much larger and thornier issue of overall adequacy of school funding.

The court will hear oral arguments Sept. 21 on that portion of the case, where the plaintiff school districts are seeking upwards of $550 million a year in additional base state funding.

They argue that’s how much has been cut in state funding since former Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, and current Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, began slashing state aid in the wake of the Great Recession.

But in an earlier round of appeals, the court changed the standard by which it judges the overall adequacy of state education spending.

Instead of basing it on the actual cost of providing required services, which was the standard used in the last school funding case, Montoy v. Kansas, the court now says it will judge adequacy based on student achievement, as defined by standards known as the Rose capacities, set out in a Kentucky school funding case in the 1980s.

Those essentially say that by the time students graduate from high school they should have a broad base of knowledge and skills to prepare them for college or enable them to compete in the job market and be active participants in their communities.

Alan Rupe, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said he expects the Supreme Court to rule based on the record presented at trial before a three-judge panel, where he said the evidence was “overwhelming” to show that current funding levels are inadequate.

“The evidence involved people on the front lines of public education testifying that additional resources are needed, and talking about what happened when they got additional resources,” he said, referring to the additional money ordered in the 2005 Montoy decision. “It resulted in better achievement in the classroom.”

From 2007 through 2009, he said, student test scores began to climb and achievement gaps between races and economic classes began to shrink.

But the 2008-2009 school year was also the year when the financial industry collapsed, sending the United States into the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. State revenues quickly began to evaporate and then-Gov. Parkinson ordered sweeping, across-the-board cuts in all areas of state spending, including education.

The plaintiffs in the Montoy case then asked the Supreme Court to reopen that case, arguing the state had reneged on the commitments it made to maintain adequate funding.

But the court declined to do so, saying the Montoy case was closed and that enough facts and circumstances had changed over the years that a new case would have to be filed.

That led to the filing of the current case, Gannon v. Kansas, in 2010.

In briefs already filed with the Supreme Court, the state argues that direct state aid to schools has increased since 2009 and that current funding — with all sources of funding counted — is at an all-time high.

It also argues that the amount of money appropriated for schools in any given year is a political question outside the court’s jurisdiction, an argument the court has repeatedly rejected in the past.

The oral arguments in September will take place in the midst of a hotly contested election year when five of the seven Supreme Court justices are up for retention, and the Kansas Republican Party has specifically targeted four of them for defeat, largely for their previous decisions in school finance cases, as well as death penalty cases.

Those four justices include Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, along with Associate Justices Carol Beier, Marla Luckert and Dan Biles. Beier, however, has recused herself from taking part in the Gannon school finance case.

The fifth justice up for retention this year, Caleb Stegall, is not being targeted by Republicans because he was appointed to the court by Gov. Sam Brownback and has not participated in either the school finance case or the most controversial death penalty case involving convicted killers Jonathan and Reginald Carr.