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Kansas School Districts Want $500M More This Year, State Wants 5-Year Phase-in

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
In their latest legal briefs, school districts suing Kansas say a dramatic infusion of funds is needed to close achievement gaps. The state says schools need to figure out how to spend more wisely.

(This story has been updated)  

The ink is barely dry on a deal to increase school spending by more than half a billion dollars, but Kansas is already headed for a fresh round of legal arguments.

School districts suing the state say the plan falls short in part because it will happen gradually over five years. They want the Kansas Supreme Court to make the state pay out $506 million more this fiscal year — on top of the $190 million boost the Legislature had already promised.

The state argues its plan is more than sufficient.

“The Legislature’s decision to phase in funding increases over five years was a reasonable and prudent approach,” lawyers for the state wrote in a brief to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Both sides in the seven-year lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, filed their briefs Monday. On May 22 they will make their pleas to the court in person.

The plaintiffs want the court to declare the new school funding law unconstitutional — and to make the Legislature and Gov. Jeff Colyer hammer out another solution by the end of June.

“With the proper level of funding, all Kansas school districts could be performing as well as USD 229,” their attorneys wrote, referring to the suburban district of Blue Valley in one of the state’s wealthiest areas, Johnson County.

More than 60 percent of Blue Valley students are on track in math and reading at a level the Kansas State Board of Education has determined is needed to prepare them for college and careers after graduation. Ninety-five percent of the district’s students finish high school within four years.

Statewide, less than 40 percent of students are hitting the mark in math and reading, and the four-year graduation rate is 86 percent.

This winter the Legislature commissioned a third-party study to calculate what it would take to help students succeed in school, and that study pointed to figures well above $1.5 billion.

The plaintiffs point to that in their briefs, but the state’s lawyers argue the consultants based their math on achieving academic goals that no state has achieved and that are more aggressive than the Kansas State Board of Education’s own policies.

A Kansas News Service analysis reached a similar conclusion this spring.

Because the study overshot, “even the State Board’s lofty vision,” state lawyers argue, lawmakers “reasonably decided” they didn’t have to implement its recommendations. They say the five-year plan that lawmakers chose instead should still be enough to end the litigation, and will give schools time to figure out how to spend the money wisely.

Plaintiffs, however, say the plan doesn’t properly account for inflation that will eat up a lot of the money. This, they say, will leave schools without the dramatic infusion of resources needed to help many thousands of kids overcome their academic struggles.

They also argue Kansas’ new plan is unfair to poorer school districts, because of how it ties in property taxes that are harder to raise in those areas.

On Monday Gov. Jeff Colyer signed the latter of two school finance bills that reached his desk during the legislative session that wrapped up last Friday. The second was a clean-up bill after the first bill inadvertently fell $80 million short of what lawmakers intended. Combined, the bills kick off the five-year plan to eventually increase annual state aid to public schools by around $530 million.

The plan, he said in a statement, gets schools the money they need “without raising taxes on hardworking Kansas families.”

This year’s legislation comes after the Legislature signed off on a two-year $300 million increase a year earlier. The Kansas Supreme Court allowed that plan to take effect but found it unconstitutional and ordered the state to fix it this spring.

(This story has been updated to clarify the amount of funding the plaintiff districts are seeking for the 2018-19 school year.) 

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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