A unanimous Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday a $90 million appropriation to the public school system complied with a clause in the Kansas Constitution outlining the state's role in making suitable provision for education of children.
The journey to this legal milestone began in 2010 with filing of a lawsuit against the state by a handful of disgruntled school districts. It inspired tumultuous attacks by legislators on the judicial branch, generated more than 20,000 pages of court documents from trial to appeal and provoked governors to castigate and glorify participants in the case.
And, finally, it came to this pivotal ruling by Supreme Court justices who appear to yearn for a break from their K-12 appellate caseload but are wary of politicians' opportunity to break promises about funding an adequate and equitable education for children. The court's opinion declared the justices' intention to retain jurisdiction of the case "to ensure continued implementation of the scheduled funding."
The deal lauded by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and adopted by a bipartisan majority of the 2019 Legislature was a response to the Supreme Court's previous consensus that a finishing touch was required to a 2018 law signed by then-Gov. Jeff Colyer and directing $525 million over five years into public schools. The justices accepted that spending blueprint but sought a supplemental allocation of $90 million to make up for the state's failure to cover districts' inflationary costs.
"I will do everything I can to hold the Legislature to its promise to fully fund our schools and avoid more legal battles over our education system," Kelly said after the ruling was made public. "Funding our schools is about more than money and lawsuits. Investing in our children’s education is the best investment we can make, and as long as I am governor, I will continue to fight for our schools and our kids.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she was pleased the high court accepted the Legislature's latest work. She expressed disappointment the Supreme Court declined to relinquish control of the long-running case. She also said the public school system must demonstrate that additional funding equated to better student achievement.
"The Kansas Legislature must now make sure the additional funding delivers real results for our students," Wagle said. "We must improve our graduation rates and ensure that our students are prepared for college, technical school or the workforce when they graduate.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the Supreme Court was justified in retaining jurisdiction. He said members of the Legislature had "a notoriously bad reputation of not keeping its commitment to K-12 education."
Schools for Fair Funding, which represents the Hutchinson, Wichita, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan., districts in the lawsuit, said the Supreme Court shouldn't have accepted the $90 million inflation adjustment if sustained at that level for four years.
Instead, SFFF attorney John Robb said, the court ought to have required additional money to be compounded annually so the second-year adjustment escalated to $180 million and so on. At this juncture, the state has pledged to spend $4 billion annually on public education.
Justices pointed to "the inexact nature" of accounting for inflation in future years and determined the Legislature's plan would lead to an adequate funding total by 2022. The opinion said: "We did not prescribe a particular method for how to make satisfactory adjustments for inflation, nor did we identify a specific amount of corrective funding needed."
Once the multi-year financial plan reached maturity, a provision in the state law would require annual increases based on the Consumer Price Index.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office defended years of unconstitutional legislation in the case, raised the prospect of altering the Kansas Constitution to give lawmakers unilateral power to decide how much funding schools needed. The latest commitments will eventually deliver $1 billion more in annual state aid to districts than existed nine years ago when the lawsuit was initiated, he said.
"It’s time for a thoughtful conversation about whether this process we have witnessed over the past decade is really how Kansans want school finance decisions to be made," the Republican attorney general said.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, questioned whether the state could afford to carry out the promised funding hikes contained in bills signed by Kelly and Colyer. The House committee responsible for overseeing school funding proposed during this year's session the elimination of two years of funding increases, but the idea failed to gain traction.
"Our goal from the beginning was to create certainty for our kids, families and our schools," Ryckman said. "It would be a relief if today’s decision did that and ended the decades long cycle of litigation, but without a stable and balanced budget the governor’s plan is built upon an empty promise."
He said state government would need to reduce spending or raise taxes by $693 million to fulfill the five-year pledge to public education.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said passage of laws mandating funding of public schools was a critical accomplishment and the Supreme Court ruling was "a victory for schools, teachers and, most importantly, students, all across the state."
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said he was happy the court accepted the education blueprint and looked forward to tackling another thorny issue.
"I'd like to thank all my colleagues for working hard to solve this problem," Denning said. "With the school litigation behind us, it's on to the next agenda item — Medicaid expansion."
Four of the Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, two by moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves and the other by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.