By CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN
Kansas lawmakers voted last weekend to increase public school funding over the next half decade — the latest chapter in a long and winding court battle.
The story is far from over. Here’s what’s ahead in the coming weeks and months, and where it could all spin out of control.
Gov. Jeff Colyer plans to sign the school finance bill early next week.
After that, the funding boost is scheduled to start on July 1 — the new fiscal year — and ratchet upward in the four years after that one.
There’s just one problem …
… As it turns out, that bill had a pretty big error in it.
Lawmakers thought they were voting to ratchet up K-12 spending year by year so that schools would, by Year Five, get more than half a billion dollars above what they get today.
Instead, schools will get $80 million less per year than planned.
Colyer wants that fixed. So when lawmakers get back from spring break on April 26, expect some legislative deja vu: Conservatives arguing Kansas can’t afford another $80 million, moderates arguing it can, and Democrats arguing $80 million isn’t enough.
They won’t have much time to fight about it before the state and the school districts suing it have to turn in their homework.
April 30 is when the Kansas Supreme Court wants to see legal arguments — in writing — about that five-year plan.
If Kansas wants to end seven years of legal headaches, it needs to convince the justices the plan is enough to give kids an appropriate education.
Because one thing is clear — the plaintiffs will be arguing the opposite.
In the middle of brief-filing season, watch for a vote on changes meant to stop lawsuits like the current one.
Business groups and conservative Republicans are chomping at the bit to amend the state constitution.
But can they? It takes a two-thirds majority in each chamber to get to a public referendum. With 40 Democrats in the House, Republicans spearheading the charge there can only afford to lose a single vote from their side of the aisle.
A few moderate Republicans are already telling them to take a hike. So proponents either need to change some Republicans’ minds or win over some Democrats.
Lawyers for both sides will face off — yet again — for oral arguments.
The plaintiffs will say the five-year plan isn’t enough money to help the tens of thousands of students who aren’t even on grade level in math and reading. Why? They say schools will spend most of it just on keeping up with the inflation for all their regular expenses. So … not much will be left over for after-school tutoring, smaller class sizes or other changes needed for such large-scale academic progress.
The burden is on the state to prove them wrong. It will likely argue lawmakers took a look at school finance research, checked in with educators, and worked hard to target money where it’s needed.
In October, the justices said they would rule by the last day of June — just in time for the new fiscal year.
That would be pretty fast. The last time they ruled on the adequacy of state aid, it took them about three months after receiving each side’s briefs. The time before that, it took more than half a year.
And what will the court decide?
Well … any number of things.
- The justices could say Kansas needs to spend more. If that happens, they could give lawmakers time — say, another year — to fix it, or make them rush straight back to Topeka to get it done in a special session. And, yes, they could even shut down summer school or delay the coming school year by blocking the state from sending money to districts until it complies.
- Or the state could win its case. Though even if that happens, the court could retain jurisdiction to make sure Kansas follows through on that five-year plan. (In the 2000s Kansas ditched a multiyear court-approved school finance plan part-way through.)
- Or the state could partly win and partly lose. For example, the justices could decide the state’s plan is pretty much okay, but unfair to poorer school districts and in need of some tweaks.
- Or neither party might win. The justices could decide a lower court or a specially appointed third party needs to take another look at some of the underlying facts. That would potentially mean many more months of legal wrangling before coming back to the Supreme Court for even more.