The great puzzle in Kansas is how the State got such a thoughtful Supreme Court, one that actually cares about education.

Kansas is in a deep budget hole because Governor Sam Brownback cut taxes repeatedly, in the belief that low taxes would produce economic growth. Only it didn’t, and the schools are in big trouble.

The court has repeatedly ordered the state legislature to produce a school funding plan that meets the requirements of the state constitution. After years of budget cuts, the state’s schools are in dire need of money. At one point, legislators grumbled ominous threats about how they might shake up the court to undermine its authority.

But now the lawyers for the state are in court, and the justices are insistent on a commitment to a fair funding plan.

Attorneys for the state and the Legislature faced a barrage of questions from skeptical Kansas Supreme Court justices Tuesday scrutinizing the Legislature’s school finance plan.

Solicitor general Stephen McAllister and Jeff King, a former Senate vice president, sought to fend off claims from school districts that Kansas is doing too little to make up for several years in which budget cuts and funding stagnation became the norm and school budgets fell behind inflation.

The justices repeatedly interrupted their arguments to seek deeper clarification of calculations the state cited to justify adding $293 million to school funding over the next two years. And they showed some interest in potentially retaining jurisdiction once they have issued their ruling, to ensure the state complies.

McAllister and King stood their ground, arguing the state’s solution meets the court’s previous demands.

“S.B. 19 makes substantial efforts to improve the funding,” McAllister said, using the plan’s legislative bill number.

Digging into the math

In the span of Gannon v. Kansas’ seven-year history, district court judges and the state Supreme Court have repeatedly struck down Kansas’ school funding schemes as unconstitutional.

Among the justices’ concerns in this latest round of the legal battle was a statistical analysis of student achievement that the Legislature generated this spring and used to extrapolate what statewide funding should be. The calculation was based on spending levels at 41 school districts found to be performing well on certain academic outcomes.

“I understand the math,” Justice Dan Biles told McAllister. “I need to know what makes that reliable and valid, and I’m not seeing it here.”

‘I understand the math. I need to know what makes that reliable and valid, and I’m not seeing it here.’ — Justice Dan Biles
The justices homed in on methodological particulars, such as the use of averages instead of medians and whether the omission of budget changes at six school districts could have skewed the results. And they questioned whether lawmakers had cherry-picked portions of past school finance studies to minimize the state’s financial obligations.

Justice Eric Rosen asked about the state’s reliance on local property taxes to fund education through a system that allows school boards to elect to spend more. The concern is that poorer school districts are less likely to do so because of the burden on local taxpayers.

“What happens to those children?” he said, referring to students in those areas.