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Kansas Lawmakers Look To The Past To Find A Way Forward With School Funding Formula

Sam Zeff
Kansas News Service
Wichita attorney Alan Rupe has been suing Kansas for nearly 30 years over school funding. He is in the middle of the current case, Gannon v. Kansas.

The Kansas Legislature isn’t close to coming up with a school funding formula. 

However, lawmakers are working with a bill that looks a lot like the formula they scrapped in 2015 for block grants.

That bill, and the struggle this session to write it, is not just back to the future, but back 25 years to the future. That’s when another school funding suit bogged down the session.

When the history of Kansas school finance lawsuits is written — whenever that may be — two names will loom large. And they’re not governors, attorneys general or legislative bigwigs.

The first name is Judge Terry Bullock.

Many Kansans have never heard of Bullock, who served 30 years on the Shawnee County District Court. But his rulings are, essentially, the law.

Bullock was a player in three school funding cases starting in 1991. “So I’ve had quite a lot of exposure to these kinds of pieces of litigation,” Bullock says.

The other name is Alan Rupe, a lawyer, who is still in the game.

Credit File Photo / Kansas Public Radio
Kansas Public Radio
The Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling in March at the Kansas Judicial Center that the state school funding formula is inadequate under the Kansas Constitution. Lawmakers are working to craft a funding formula that will satisfy the court, but they also face a large budget hole over the next two fiscal years.

Rupe has been suing Kansas for nearly 30 years over school funding and is right in the middle of the ongoing Gannon case that is currently tugging at negotiations in the statehouse. He says it reminds him of the 1991 suit, Mock v. Kansas, when Bullock called all the parties into a conference in the state Supreme Court chambers.

“I can remember that session because, I think, it was supposed to start at 10 o’clock and Governor (Joan) Finney and then Attorney General Bob Stephan remained in the hallway because neither wanted to enter the room before the other one did,” he says.

Finally, Rupe says, one of them came to their senses, and Bullock set the group, which included lawyers and legislative leaders, to work.

“I reminded them that everybody in the case — everybody, including me — was being paid by the state,” Bullock says. “It seemed to me if we could get this case resolved in a reasonable manner that it would be a wise thing for the public and a good thing for the schoolchildren.”

In a few hours, the group agreed to form a task force to come up with a new school funding plan. That led to lawmakers passing a school funding formula in 1992 that changed the way Kansas funds public schools.

That ended the Mock case, but it didn’t end the lawsuits.

In 1999, the state was sued in a case called Montoy v. Kansas. The plaintiffs argued the state wasn’t spending nearly enough money to fund education adequately and equitably.

The Montoy case resulted in the lawmakers agreeing to put in an additional $755 million for public schools between 2005 and 2009.

But as the economy soured, the Legislature reneged on the deal and actually cut funding in 2009.

Rupe says these past few legislative sessions are like going back in time.

“It feels like Montoy when the … Kansas Legislature adopted a formula (in 2005) that did not pass Supreme Court muster and we went into a special session, went on the cusp of a constitutional meltdown,” Rupe says.

Constitutional meltdown. Special session. Sound familiar?

This year’s House bill would provide extra money for students who are poor, English language learners or live a long way from school, among other things. A Senate plan would do the same thing.

Rupe says it’s basically the same formula hammered out after the Mock case 25 years ago.

Bullock says it’s hard to watch history repeat itself.

“So it’s frustrating for me, of course, but more importantly, I think, for the families and the children who watch some districts have all the funds needed,” Bullock says. “Some of the districts in my cases had so little that they couldn’t buy classroom textbooks. They didn’t have pencils and paper. And yet other schools, for example, had a full-size Olympic swimming pool for the recreation time for the children.”

Rupe says he also is frustrated. Gone is the attitude of everyone — legislators to lawyers to state leaders — rolling up their sleeves to negotiate school funding. “I don’t think you could get that group into one room,” he says.

“I don’t think that there is a room that would hold those folks in a fashion where people could work through the issues.”

The days of working together, Rupe says, seem to be over.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name and date of the Mock v. State of Kansas court case. The timeline of litigation and legislation has been clarified.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KCUR.org.

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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