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Kansas AG Asks State Supreme Court to Back Down on School-Closure Threat

In the lead-up to the June 23 special session where Kansas legislators will attempt to address a court order to make its school funding formula more equitable,  the state's attorney general is asking the Kansas Supreme Court to back down from its threat to close schools if lawmakers fail to act, and political leaders are looking for ways to redistribute an annual $4 billion in education dollars.

Derek Schmidt, the state's attorney general, says cutting off all of the school funding a move that would have a disproportionate impact on students. .  

"An African proverb cautions that 'when two elephants fight, it is the grass the gets trampled," he wrote in the motion filed Friday.  

He also threatened to appeal the case, Gannon v. Kansas, to a federal court, pointing out that withholding several million dollars for children with disabilities could potentially violate the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  

Alan Rupe, the lawyer of the four districts who have sued the state, described the motion to the Lawrence Journal-World as "thinly veiled threats." 

Last month, the state's supreme court said for the second time this year that the state leaves its poor school districts with far less money than its wealthy districts. The supreme court attached to its ruling a threat that if the legislature doesn't come up with a different funding formula by June 30, the court will ban the state from distributing any state dollars, a move that could potentially lead to the shutdown of the state's school system.  

On Thursday, the House and Senate judiciary committees will meet to discuss potential changes to the state's funding formula, according to the Associated Press. According to the state's education department, the state would have to add at least $38 million in spending in order to satisfy the court. It would have to provide more than $50 million to do so while not forcing some of the state's wealthier (and politically powerful) districts from making cuts this summer.  

Democrats have suggested reverting to an old formula that would redistribute money based on the number and types of students districts have.  

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has repeatedly pointed out that $38 million is just 1 percent of the state's education budget. But the state's revenue has fallen precipitously in recent years since Brownback ushered through a series of income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 in order to spur spending and rejuvenate the state's economy. 

For a story I wrote in a recent Education Week issue about funding formula cases, Richard Levy, a legal scholar at the University of Kansas, said forcing legislatures to adhere to court orders has been, historically, very challenging. 

"What would they do if the legislature says no?" Levy said. "You can't jail legislators, because they have legislative immunity."

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