(This story has been updated.)
Kansas continues to underfund its schools, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Monday — a decision that could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars more over the next four years.
But because the Legislature agreed to significant hikes in funding this spring, the justices gave it another year to add to the amount it sends to local school districts.
The high court could have forced lawmakers back to Topeka in coming weeks to fix the problem or face school closures, something the state’s lawyers begged it not to do.
“The 2018 legislature’s efforts,” the justices wrote, “and the amount of money added to the financing system for the approaching school year should permit such an extension.”
The Legislature passed a five-year plan this spring to add more than a half billion dollars in annual school funding.
That, the state argued, brings Kansas in line with funding levels approved by the Kansas Supreme Court in a separate case in the mid-2000s — adjusting for inflation.
The justices disagreed. Among the problems they found: Kansas left out multiple years’ worth of inflation from its tallies.
The ruling doesn’t say how much it will cost to fix that. John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, put the figure at about $100 million a year for four years starting in 2019.
But because the plaintiffs and state disagree on how to calculate annual inflation, he surmised the state might peg the figure at around $250 million over the four years.
Robb called the ruling “bittersweet.”
“It’s a great ruling because it recognizes that the legislature has gone a good distance but they’ve not made it to the finish line,” he said, but added, “The professional studies show that to get our kids proficient is going to take a lot more resources, but the court didn’t go that far.”
Last winter, the Legislature commissioned a study to figure out how much money schools need to meet standards laid out in the state constitution and previous Kansas Supreme Court rulings.
But the effort backfired on conservative leadership when its authors concluded Kansas could need to add as much as $1.8 to $2.1 billion to its public schools to close achievement gaps and prepare students for college or careers.
The plaintiff school districts urged the court, in vain, to make Kansas aim for those higher amounts in coming years.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office defended the state in court, lauded the justices for rejecting those arguments.
The ruling “flatly rejects the plaintiffs’ unreasonable demands for an additional $1 billion windfall,” he said in a statement.
Instead, justices agreed that Kansas can finally escape nearly eight years of litigation by following guidance issued more than a decade ago in the Montoy v. Kansas school finance lawsuit.
That lawsuit ended with the court approving a multi-year plan to ultimately increase school funding by more than $700 million. But a few years after the high court dismissed the case, the 2008 recession derailed the plan, prompting a fresh lawsuit.
Dozens of school districts are cosponsoring the current lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, which began in 2010. The plaintiffs argue that after Sam Brownback became governor in 2011, he should have returned to the funding plan instead of cutting income taxes.
In one ruling after the next, the Kansas Supreme Court has agreed schools are underfunded and have been so since 2009.
Meanwhile, the high court did drop the other major claim in the school finance lawsuit against Kansas -- that the state is not only underfunding schools, but left the poorest districts with the least resources. Past court rulings found school funding unfair to taxpayers and children in school districts with weak local tax bases.
Gubernatorial candidates were quick to weigh in on the ruling.
Democratic contender Laura Kelly praised the court’s work and competitor Josh Svaty lamented low teacher pay.
Republican incumbent Jeff Colyer, who signed off on this spring’s school finance bill, touted his efforts to improve the school system without a tax hike.
“We got it done,” he said. “I look forward to building upon the work we did together this year.”
His main challenger painted a different picture, calling for an amendment to the Kansas Constitution to stop school finance lawsuits.
“The Court is now micromanaging every dollar spent on education,” Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach wrote. “Even down to calculating adjustments for inflation.”
Schmidt, who is running for another term as attorney general, also called for putting a constitutional amendment to a public vote. Jim Barnett, a Republican running for governor, said in a news release that the court’s ruling “got it right.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.