DALLAS — Testimony is expected to get under way Monday in a lawsuit by a consortium of 54 Kansas school districts seeking more state aid for education.
The trial will be conducted in Topeka by a three-judge special state tribunal created specifically by the Legislature to consider school finance lawsuits. It is expected to last at least four weeks.
Plaintiff attorneys will contend that next school year’s modest increase in per-student funding is not sufficient. They say they will argue that the state’s claims of inadequate revenues are belied by the significant income tax cuts enacted by the 2012 Legislature and an expected $465 million surplus at the end of fiscal 2013.
Lawmakers lowered the top income tax rate to 4.9% from 6.45%, effective Jan. 1, 2013, and eliminated the income tax liability of almost 200,000 small businesses. The suit, the second challenging the state’s funding efforts as unconstitutional in the last 10 years, was filed on Nov. 2, 2010. The districts formed the nonprofit Schools for Fair Funding Inc. to support the suit, Gannon v. State of Kansas.
John Robb of Kutak Rock LLP, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the suit was necessary because the Legislature failed to comply with a 2006 agreement to increase local education aid. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the education funding formula was unequal and relied on a flawed formula influenced by political, not educational considerations.
The Legislature then met in special session and agreed on a three-year plan to raise base aid by 70%.
“Before the three-year plan could even complete implementation, the state cut school funding by over $455 million,” Robb said in the initial filing.
The Legislature this year raised the per-student base aid to $3,840 in fiscal 2013, up $60 from fiscal 2012 and the first increase in base aid since fiscal 2008. But state base aid is lower now than when the decision was handed down in late 2005.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who has retained outside counsel for the suit, said the current school finance formula is constitutional and that adequate funding has been provided for Kansas’ public schools. He said lawmakers had few good options when state revenues began a steep decline in 2008.
“The economic crisis that started in 2008 and in some ways endures until today is unprecedented in modern U.S. history,” Schmidt said. “The Legislature did a remarkable job in minimizing the effect on public education.”
Gov. Sam Brownback and other GOP leaders backed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit a state court from ordering lawmakers to increase spending on education. The measure failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds approval in the Legislature as the 2012 session ended.