The incredibly complicated task of adequately and equitably financing public schools in Kansas will heat up this week and next. Probably a couple weeks after that, we’ll find out whether the Legislature has met the Kansas Supreme Court order to provide adequate and equitable financing of schools.
Last week, remember, it was the 50-page assertions by the state and by the four school districts suing the state for more funding for schools. Long read, and only the school districts had charts in their filing with the high court.
This week, we get the real red meat of the case. It is both the state and the plaintiffs swinging specifically at just what the other side believes make them a winner and why.
Is $525 million in new money over the next five years enough? That’s what the state has appropriated, and somewhat embarrassingly, it’s less than a $200,000-plus consultant hired by lawmakers proposed, which might lead to the closure of pubic K-12 schools next fall.
The state says it is increasing funding and it is doing it at a measured pace so that it is used to make kids smarter. Dump that money into schools all at once, and districts won’t have planned how to use it best, so that its results show up on test scores and increases in learning skills, not just fancy football fields and new cheerleader uniforms.
The plaintiffs? Well, they’re basically saying school districts know what they need to do for students, that they can use a flood of money that they want productively. Schoolteachers need raises and new programs that will make sure all students learn to their maximum abilities. School districts know how to use new money, they just don’t have it.
But the next two weeks are going to be the keys for all the legislative scraps over school funding versus tax cuts vs. everything else that the state does in keeping Kansas cared for.
This week, each side of the case says why the other side’s defense is flawed. Each is limited to 25 pages of arguments, and those will be the close-up statements that will likely define the scrap that will be presented to the court on May 22.
Those oral arguments — which usually bring some legislators to the Supreme Court chambers to watch — are where the justices get their first chance to question the lawyers for both sides. It’s also the first chance that the public gets to weigh the questions, the issues that the justices have with the new school finance law.
It’s where most of the observers will get an idea of whether the Legislature has fixed school finance to the court’s satisfaction, or whether lawmakers have missed the key elements that the court is looking for in a constitutional K-12 finance law.
We might learn at those oral argument just which way the court eventually will go with its decision. It’ll be watching for smiles, grimaces, the phrasing of questions for the lawyers and the occasional nods that justices try to suppress but which now and again may give an indication of which way they tilt.
The decision, probably in early June? It’s going to determine whether the Legislature needs a special session to fix the formula and make sure schools open this fall or whether the court continues to monitor the case into the future, making lawmakers work toward that constitutionality test every year.
And, there are steps short of “complicity” that the court can take to boost school finance. Those are probably what lawmakers are most interested in. Just what, short of closing schools, might the court order…
Martin Hawver is publisher
of Hawver’s Capitol Report