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Kansas Supreme Court Lets Legislature Off the Hook on K-12 Funding...For Now

Kansas' supreme court said Friday that the state was on track to provide an adequate education for its public school students under a long-running school finance lawsuit.

But while the court said that the $90 million extra the state set aside for its schools during this year's legislative session was a step in the right direction, it did not permanently close the case known as Gannon v. Kansas. That leaves the possibility of future battles between the state's high court and the legislature over how Kansas should fund its schools. 

The state has been embroiled in a knockdown legal fight over school spending for more than three decades. That came to a head during the tenure of Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, who slashed income and sales tax to dramatically reduce the government's footprint and spur its economy. (He left the governorship in early 2018 to work for the Trump administration.)

Amid a series of state supreme court rulings, Kansas over the past three years has invested more than $525 million more into its schools. Last year, the court said while the contributions were admirable, the state was not on track to keep up with inflation and still owed more toward its schools.  While state politicians pointed to the $90 million for next year, school officials felt the state owed almost double that amount.  

On Friday, the court said the state was on course to provide an adequate education by 2022, as determined by previous adequacy studies, but because the state hasn't committed to future contributions and the costs of inflation can be "inexact," it can't close the case. 

"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," the court said in its ruling.

The state's lawmakers saw that as yet another sign that the legislature should take steps to remove the court from having any say over its school funding. 

"With this lawsuit now behind us, 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 state's Attorney General Derek Schmidt told the local press.  

School finance lawyers and researchers saw the Kansas case as groundbreaking for the strategy school districts and their advocates took to price out an adequate and equitable education. Those strategies have been replicated in other states' school finance cases. 

Fred Dierksen, the superintendent of the Dodge City school district, one of the litigants in the case said in a recent interview with Education Week that his district has used the millions of dollars the state has sent it for after-school programs and to hire new teachers to work with recently arrived immigrant students on English-language learning. 

"Absolutely, there's a strong correlation between academic outcomes and money," he said. "Money is the driving force for everything."

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