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Block Grants Are Front And Center In Kansas Supreme Court School Funding Hearing

Stephen Koranda
Kansas Public Radio

No matter how deep in the weeds you go on the current school funding case before the Kansas Supreme Court; whether you're talking assessed valuation per pupil (AVPP) or local option budget (LOB) the case seems to come back to block grant funding passed last session by the Legislature.

The hearing today was on the equity part of the case, know as Gannon. A three-judge panel from Shawnee County ruled last December that the state was not equitably funding public education and suggested the Legislature may need to find an extra $50 million to meet state constitutional standards. It also ruled block grants unconstitutional.

There were plenty of questions from  justices on points of law. However, the court kept returning to block grants. Legislative leaders and Gov. Sam Brownback pushed for block grants saying they needed two years to figure out how to replace the old system.

“If we determine that SB 7 (senate bill 7, the block grant legislation) really doesn’t do anything more than carry forward the constitutional infirmaries that were already found, are you saying that we should allow an unconstitutional statue to continue for a couple of years to let people work on it?” Justice Dan Biles asked the attorney for the state.

Kansas Solicitor General Stephen McAllister said, essentially, yes. He suggested if the high court finds block grants unconstitutional, that it stay the order and give guidance to the Legislature so it can fix the law.

But Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Republican from Fairway, doesn't buy the time out idea.

“We had every opportunity as lawmakers to deliberate, study and decide on a new system of school funding for the state without first having repealed the old one that was repeatedly litigated and found to be constitutional though improperly funded," she said after the arguments.

But many others in the  Legislature haven't responded well to the idea that the Supreme Court might tell it how much to spend on K-12 education. In fact, some conservatives have said lawmakers should ignore any ruling from the court that calls for more spending. Getting the Legislature to coalesce around anything has been a chore.

“The Legislature is not a monolith which makes this a very difficult challenge," says Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. "There are a whole lot of different voices with widely divergent interests on this subject matter.”

But attorney Alan Rupe, who represents the school districts suing the state, said after the hearing that lawmakers need high court help. “The Legislature, which clearly can’t act in a constitutional manner without some clear guidance, needs to have a MapQuest of where they need to go in order to comply with the Kansas Constitution.”

Some of the lawyers and justices in the court today have been around for two school funding cases that have spanned 20 years. 

Several justices questioned whether the state, has indeed, tried to fix the constitutional issues. Justice Eric Rosen suggested the state essentially says what the court wants to hear and then doesn’t deliver on the promises.  “What does a court do with that when it doesn’t happen?”

“I think the state has acted in good faith in these respects. They have fallen short of what they said they would do but they had good reasons for it," said Arthur Chalmers who also represents the state. He said lawmakers have to deal with changing economics and priorities.

“I haven’t sat in a room where somebody has told me, here’s our bad faith effort, I just haven’t heard that. Maybe it’s out there in some factions and it just hasn’t gotten to my ears," A.G. Schmidt added.

The current case has dragged on for five years. Kansas City Kansas School Superintendent Cynthia Lane says it's gone on way too long. “What really strikes me is that we’re talking about two generations of kids now who have not had access to the resources they need to be highly educated.”

But there's still plenty of briefs and arguments to be made. The Supreme Court must still take up the adequacy portion of the case which is more complicated and, potentially, a much more expensive proposition for the state. The trial court suggested it may take another $500 million to make public education in Kansas adequate for all children. The first briefs on that part of the case are due later this month with oral arguments next spring. 

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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