TOPEKA — A yearslong school finance lawsuit appears poised to continue along similar battle lines after plaintiffs and defendants filed court briefs Wednesday for the next chapter of their showdown.
The state of Kansas and an alliance of school districts are set to face off in oral arguments Nov. 6 at the Kansas Supreme Court over whether Kansas is failing to give poorer school districts enough resources to offer their students educational opportunities comparable to those in richer districts.
The school districts won their case at a lower court in June, but the state is appealing.
In a brief filed Wednesday, the state argues, as in the past, the courts are exceeding their constitutional powers by meddling with legislative actions and appropriations.
The lower court’s order, the state says, necessitates more money for schools, yet this “requires money to be drawn from the treasury, and these payments are not authorized by any law.”
Additionally, the defendants accuse the lower court of unconstitutionally creating legislation by striking down provisions of the state’s current school funding law and making other changes to it that effectively replaced the legislative process.
They also say Kansas’ courts don’t have reason to favor a specific financing mechanism for schools, yet the lower court did so, which “fails to recognize that the Kansas Constitution does not require a specific school finance system.”
The lawyers for the school districts, meanwhile, point to previous court rulings on school finance as evidence the lower court hasn’t violated its authority.
They argue poorer schools have been underfunded for years, and the Legislature’s controversial move this spring to lock in school funding levels for the next two years further delays justice for the children whose lives are affected by the quality of their schools.
“Kansas students deserve more than a few years’ worth of a constitutionally appropriate education nestled in between court cases and cost studies,” the plaintiffs write. “The Constitution demands more.”
The lawyers were referring to another yearslong court battle that ended in 2005 with the courts ordering the state to increase school funding dramatically. The Legislature pumped in money to meet the court order, but only until the 2008 global financial meltdown.
The financial crisis prompted steep cuts to Kansas’ base funding per student, and extra funding cuts to poorer school districts that had relied on state aid to bolster their local funding sources.
Kansas has been embroiled in the current school finance lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, since 2010. Schools are accusing the Legislature of underfunding K-12 education and thereby violating Article VI of the state Constitution, which says Kansas must “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”
There are two main sections of the lawsuit: an equity question and an adequacy question. The plaintiffs argue funding for poorer school districts is too low and therefore inequitable. If the Supreme Court sides with them, it could cost the state tens of millions of dollars more per year. The plaintiffs also claim overall school funding is inadequate. If they win on that point, it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars more per year.
The Nov. 6 oral arguments will address equity. Oral arguments in the spring will focus on the adequacy matter.