Kansas court skeptical of state's arguments in schools case - KCTV5

Kansas court skeptical of state's arguments in schools case

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A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court's justices were openly skeptical Wednesday of the cash-strapped state's arguments that legislators are spending enough money on public schools to provide a suitable education to every child. (KCTV) A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court's justices were openly skeptical Wednesday of the cash-strapped state's arguments that legislators are spending enough money on public schools to provide a suitable education to every child. (KCTV)
TOPEKA, KS (AP) -

A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court's justices were openly skeptical Wednesday of the cash-strapped state's arguments that legislators are spending enough money on public schools to provide a suitable education to every child.

But Justice Dan Biles also suggested that if the court concludes that inadequate funding has allowed some children to fall behind, its order might have to be targeted to helping just them — allowing the state to potentially shift funds from programs for gifted students.

Five of the seven justices peppered state Solicitor General Stephen McAllister with questions when he told the justices they should give "substantial deference" to the Legislature on how much aid lawmakers provide to the state's 286 school districts. The state argues that it has a strong education system, ranking in the top 10 in graduation rates.

The hearing stems from a lawsuit filed by four poorer school districts against the state in 2010. One of their attorneys, Alan Rupe, argued that the state's nearly $4.1 billion in annual aid to public schools is short by roughly $800 million of what's required for lawmakers to fulfill their duty under the Kansas Constitution to finance a suitable education for every child.

In questioning McAllister, the justices echoed the districts' arguments that new standardized math and English tests last year suggested that a majority of Kansas students aren't on track to be ready for college. In the districts that sued — Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas — more than 70 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, giving them more at-risk students than 90 percent of all districts in the state.

When McAllister suggested that money is not necessarily crucial in how well students perform, Chief Justice Lawton Nuss asked him whether he had any examples of districts seeing stagnant or lower scores after an infusion of state aid. McAllister said he's sure there are examples of stagnant scores but couldn't immediately cite any.

"Is the measure state comparison, or how students are actually doing?" Justice Eric Rosen said. "If we're comparing well with the country that might be a measure that the country's not doing so well."

But McAllister said no state will ever have all of its students proficient in reading, math and other subjects, and that "perfection" should not be the goal. He also said it's rational for the Legislature to conclude that schools are performing well and that more funding isn't necessary.

"I don't think you really should worry about the input if the output is doing well," McAllister said.

The six-year legal dispute has pitted the seven Supreme Court justices — six of whom were appointed by Democratic or moderate Republican governors — against conservative Republicans, who control the rest of state government. The high court has reviewed the case multiple times and directed legislators to increase funding for poor districts so they don't fall too far behind wealthier ones.

The districts' attorneys argue that the state could afford additional spending if Republican legislators hadn't slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013. Conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback pushed the tax cuts as an economic stimulus, but the state has struggled to balance its budget since.

A lower-court panel previously ruled that the state wasn't spending enough money on its schools overall, and the state appealed. The Supreme Court isn't expected to rule until after the November election.

Rupe said between a third and half of the state's students are struggling because of inadequate funding. He noted that his granddaughter, Katelyn, a Salina fourth-grader, was in the audience.

"I'd like her generation to graduate in an adequately funded system," he said.

But Biles said the state constitution might require only a remedy aimed at underachieving students — meaning funds could be shifted within school budgets to comply. McAllister then suggested his hometown schools in Lawrence could redirect funds from Advanced Placement courses, though, he added, "I wouldn't want to see it happen."

Wichita Superintendent John Allison rejected the idea after the hearing.

"You have to lift the whole boat," Allison told reporters. "You cannot cannibalize from one group of students."

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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