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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A panel of Kansas judges ruled Wednesday that a new education funding law complies with a state Supreme Court mandate to boost aid to poor public schools but wouldn't narrow the scope of an ongoing lawsuit over whether the state is providing enough aid overall to local districts.
The three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court declined the state's request to dismiss all the claims questioning the fairness of the state's school funding formula in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by parents and school districts. But the judges also rejected arguments from attorneys for the aggrieved school districts that uncertainty about the state's finances or future legislative actions raise questions about whether the state actually met the earlier Supreme Court mandate.
The high court ruled in March that past, recession-driven cuts in aid to poor school districts had created unconstitutional gaps in aid between them and wealthier districts and ordered lawmakers to fix the problem. The Supreme Court also returned the lawsuit to the three-judge panel in Shawnee County — which had reviewed it previously — with orders to examine the Legislature's response and consider other issues, including whether the state's total aid to schools is adequate.
The Republican-dominated Legislature approved the new education law in April, increasing aid to poor school districts by $129 million during the next school year. But it also attached policy provisions backed by GOP conservatives, including ones ending guaranteed teacher tenure and another granting tax credits to corporations bankrolling private-school scholarships for at-risk children.
Both sides in the lawsuit agreed that the additional aid to poor districts met the Supreme Court's mandate.
"I think what the Legislature deserves is a pat on the back," said Arthur Chalmers, a Wichita attorney representing the state.
But Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney representing the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita school districts, argued that legislators have a history of failing to meet promises to public schools and noted that backtracking on funding commitments made to resolve an earlier school finance lawsuit led to the current litigation.
Rupe also pointed out the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, is promising to file a separate lawsuit challenging conservatives' policies in the new law.
In addition, many Democrats question whether the state will be able to sustain its current spending on schools because of income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013 at the urging of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. The state's tax collections in April and May fell a total of $310 million short of expectations, and the Brownback administration and its critics are debating whether the tax reductions are primarily to blame.
"It's trust and verify — that's all we're asking," Rupe said.
But presiding District Judge Franklin Theis said even if someone challenges policies included in the law, the new funding would stand.
Theis said the panel will next consider whether the state is spending enough money on its schools overall to meet its duty under the Kansas Constitution to provide an adequate education for every child. Rupe said remaining fairness issues can be tackled then, because they're tied to whether the state is spending enough money overall.
"We want to roll up our sleeves and get to that issue," Rupe said after the hearing.
But Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a statement after the hearing, "We look forward to demonstrating in further proceedings that the State has also met its adequacy obligations."
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