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Kansas Tells State Supreme Court There Is No Reason To Shut Down Public Schools

Stephen Koranda

In a much anticipated filing with the Kansas Supreme Court,  state Attorney General Derek Schmidt says problems with equity in school funding have been solved and there's no reason for the high court to consider shutting down public education on June 30.

“The Legislature’s good-faith, careful, reasoned and well-documented determination should be given substantial deference,” said Schmidt's 25-page brief filed late Friday afternoon.

The document is part of the run-up to the May 10 showdown between the state and school districts suing Kansas claiming K-12 funding is both inequitable and inadequate. The justices have ordered oral arguments on the equity portion on that date. The plaintiff school districts, including Kansas City, Kansas, have 10 days to respond.

The Legislature passed this proposed fix in the waning days of the session following a couple of plans that failed. It essentially reverts back to part of the formula that was replaced by block grants last year. The law also has a "hold harmless" provision that is supposed to prevent any district from losing funding under this new plan.

The brief says the law "provides school districts reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.”

The brief repeatedly says the hold harmless provision was the key to support from lawmakers and several school districts, including Shawnee Mission.

The brief also spends a lot of time arguing that the high court now has no grounds for closing down schools on June 30: "There is absolutely no reason any appropriate and proper judicial remedy would include closing Kansas public schools.”

Even if the court rules equity has not been cured, the brief argues, the justices could severe the portion of the law they find unconstitutional and simply order lawmakers to fix it.

"Moreover, if Kansas schools were defunded and shuttered by court order, serious issues of compliance with various federal educational and funding requirements would arise,” the brief went on to say.

The top lawyer for the plaintiff districts wasn't moved by the state's arguments. "Putting lipstick on a pig," says Alan Rupe from Wichita. The state's case is "all based on the fact that they don't want to add revenue" by raising taxes, he says.

He says because the bill adds very little money to the system it takes an inequitable system and, at best, keeps it inequitable and, at worst, makes the disparity even greater between wealth and poorer districts.

While the Supreme Court hasn't put a figure on it, both a lower court and estimates from the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) suggest it could take up to $80 million to completely solve equity.

After the court rules on equity then both sides move into the portion of the case that claims the state is failing to adequately fund public schools. At the same time, the Legislature must write a new school funding formula because the block grant funding scheme ends after next fiscal year.

“When we get back to work next year that we’ll knock out a school finance formula and get the schools back on track and get the Supreme Court satisfied and stop all this litigation,” says state Sen. Jim Denning from Overland Park who is the vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

Oral arguments have not bee scheduled on adequacy.

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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