Kansas Supreme Court Signs Off on Increased Education Spending

TOPEKA, Kan. — Almost a decade into a legal battle over how much education funding the state Constitution requires, Kansas’ highest court declared Friday that the state finally was spending enough money on its public schools.

The State Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision signing off on a law enacted in April that boosts the state’s education funding by roughly $90 million a year. It was the high court’s seventh ruling in less than six years in a lawsuit over spending, which was filed by four school districts in 2010.

But the justices refused to bring a full end to that lawsuit, allowing them to continue monitoring whether the Legislature was abiding by the state Constitution, which requires lawmakers to “make suitable provision for finance” of the state’s “educational interests.” The court has ruled repeatedly that the language requires legislators to provide enough money and distribute the dollars fairly enough to finance a suitable education for every child.

Kansas now spends more than $4 billion a year on its public schools — about $1 billion more than it did during the 2013-14 school year — because of the court’s decisions. Increases are promised through the 2022-23 school year, and the new law was designed to raise spending to account for inflation, something the court ruled last year was necessary.

“The State has substantially complied with our mandate,” the court said in its unsigned opinion.

The decision to keep the case open means the Supreme Court retains a hammer over the governor and legislators. If the districts believe that the state has broken its promises, they can return to the high court for another order, instead of being forced to file a new lawsuit and have a lower-court trial first. Alan Rupe, the districts’ lead lawyer, promised to move quickly if legislators “start backing up on what they promised.”

The districts had argued that in adjusting spending for inflation, state officials botched the math and needed to provide ever-larger boosts through 2022-23. Mr. Rupe said he was disappointed that “we lost the argument,” but pointed to the spending increases lawmakers were forced to approve in recent years.”

Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who took office in January, had championed the new law as a way to potentially end the lawsuit and it passed the Republican-controlled Legislature with bipartisan support.

Ms. Kelly said the latest ruling made Friday “a great day for Kansas and for our kids,” and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, said the lawsuit was behind the state “as long as the Legislature and governor fulfill the promises they have made.”

Other Republicans were less enthusiastic. Some, particularly conservatives, have questioned whether the state can sustain the new spending in the future without raising taxes or cutting state spending elsewhere.

“Our kids and our schools deserve better than an empty promise,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Kansas City-area Republican.

Republicans have also argued that the justices had overstepped their authority and infringed on the Legislature’s power to make spending decisions.

“It’s time for a thoughtful conversation about whether this process we have witnessed over the past decade is really how Kansans want school finance decisions to be made,” Mr. Schmidt said.

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