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Funding Showdown Pits Court Against Legislators in Kansas

If you're interested in a K-12 political battle that doesn't pit one group of lawmakers against another, look no further than Kansas, where the state Supreme Court and legislators seem to be at loggerheads over the future of education spending in the state. There's a distinct possibility that lawmakers simply will refuse to abide by what the court says they must do. 

What's the story? The Kansas Supreme Court is considering a 2010 lawsuit brought by several school districts, Gannon v. Kansas, that the state has failed to live up to its constitutional obligation to fund schools. Specifically, the 2010 suit says the state hasn't abided by a 2006 ruling from the same court, in which justices said the legislature wasn't making "suitable provision" for paying for public education, referring to language in Article Six of the Kansas Constitution. You can read more about that ruling in the Montoy v. Kansas case at the National Education Access Network, a project of the Teachers College, Columbia University that tracks school funding lawsuits. 

After the 2006 ruling, there was a lot of in-fighting among lawmakers about the best way to comply with the court ruling. After much "wrangling" as the Kansas City Star puts it, lawmakers agreed to pump roughly $750 million in new money into public schools. But just two years after lawmakers thought they had resolved the issue, they (along with legislatures around the country) saw their budgets get slammed by the Great Recession, and that promise of new funds for schools didn't materialize. 

This in turn led to the 2010 Gannon lawsuit, which is essentially a continuation of Montoy. Earlier this year, a Kansas district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who are seeking at least $440 million in new funding from state coffers. That means a per-student spending boost from $3,800 to $4,500. Now that the case is before the Supreme Court, judges are making it clear that the onus for the current legal wrangling in court rests with the state. 

"It stands before me, in my eyes, as a broken promise," Justice Eric Rosen said during arguments on Oct. 8. "If that promise had been kept, we would not be here."

But State Solicitor General Stephen McAllister, arguing on behalf of the state, claimed that simply increasing funding commitments wasn't a sustainable model, since lawmakers have to deal with economic and fiscal realities: "The legislature has to deal with the real world. The constitution shouldn't be a suicide pact."

During the 2013 session of the Kansas legislature, lawmakers seemed to sense that the court wouldn't necessarily look favorably on their budget decisions with respect to Montoy and Gannon. There was a push to pass a law outlawing the courts from requiring the state to spend more money on schools, for example. For a February story, I wrote about school funding lawsuits, I quoted Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican, about the issue: "We believe they should not be appropriators and that that role should be clearly left in the hands of elected officials."

Also this year, Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, signed into law new tax cuts that state conservatives say will boost the economy. But it's a move that school funding advocates say will simply deprive schools of much-needed revenue from the state. 

And finally, the political dynamic in Kansas has changed. There's a general sense that because the power center of state politics has moved to the right in the last seven years, lawmakers in charge will be significantly less eager to comply with a court order to boost K-12 spending. If the court does issue that order (it hasn't yet, with a ruling expected sometime early next year), where will the next phase of the legal battle take place?

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