TOPEKA, Kan. — A years-long fight over how the state funds its public schools will move from the courts to the Capitol next year after the Kansas Supreme Court issues a ruling, which could force lawmakers to pay hundreds of millions of dollars more to school districts — or require they do nothing at all.
A lower court ruled that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligations for funding schools, ordering an increase in spending of more than $440 million. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in October, and its decision is expected around the same time the legislative session begins on Jan. 13.
Public school funding already accounts for more than 50 percent of all state government spending each year. The state will spend more than $3 billion in the current fiscal year — and that doesn't include state contributions to teacher pension accounts.
Gov. Sam Brownback said a ruling against the state would likely force legislators to re-examine the formula used to decide how much of the state budget goes to public K-12 education.
"If the court puts a big ruling on the Legislature and says, 'You have to put in 'X' number of dollars into the system, I think you are going to get a lot of people to react, and one of the likely products will be the discussion of the school finance formula," the Republican said.
But House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat running for governor in 2014, said changing the formula shouldn't be the focus.
"The current formula passed the Legislature after an exhaustive debate, was signed into law, and has been upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court," Davis said. "It is not perfect, but it's also not the problem. The problem is that the formula has not been properly funded. That is what needs to be fixed."
The lawsuit was filed in 2010 by several students and the school districts for Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan. They argued that the state wasn't providing enough money to meet school-funding requirements in the Kansas Constitution.
The case is based on the premise that the state reneged on promises made in 2005 and 2006, after legislation was approved to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in 1999 that required the state to make "suitable provision" for financing schools.
But lawyers for the state argued that the constitution gave legislators broad latitude in setting funding, and that lawmakers haven't provided more money for schools because of economic problems in recent years.
Legislators and attorneys for the state have also argued more voraciously in recent years that school advocates must take into account the state's pension obligations as a cost of providing education. The promise of a pension after retirement is used by districts in recruiting teachers, along with health insurance and other perks.
Kansas will spend $366 million on teacher pensions in 2014, and $403 million in 2015.
Rep. Don Hineman, a moderate Dighton Republican, said he's not sure how the school finance debate will play out, given that most legislators appear unwilling to support huge increases in spending on aid to schools, particularly in the wake of income tax cuts approved since Brownback took office.
"There are three very key questions that the lawsuit creates," he said. "The first is: What authority do the courts have to order a remedy if they deem a remedy is appropriate?"
"The second question is: How do we pay for it if the remedy demands a substantial amount of money? Then the third question we deal with is the appropriate role of the judiciary going forward."
But he acknowledged, "Just the threat of that court ruling will kick off a higher level of activity."
Mark Tallman, executive director for advocacy with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said he has no predictions of how the court will rule. But he said legislators will have little reason to revisit the spending absent a court ruling, in part because they approved a two-year budget for schools in 2013.
And regardless of how the court rules, he expects efforts to change the funding formula.
"Either the schools win and they (lawmakers) have to add hundreds of millions of dollars, or the state wins and nothing changes," he said. But, he noted: "There are areas in between and infinite ways the Legislature could respond."
However, Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, believes the state will lose the lawsuit. But he fears that will lead lawmakers to focus on ways to change the court system, as they did last year when they tried to change how Supreme Court justices are chosen, and to get the session done in time to campaign for re-election next summer.
"I'd like to see the Legislature be realistic and deal with the decision in a realistic way. We have a good system and we want to keep it strong and move it forward," he said.