Is Kansas providing enough money for a suitable education for all schoolchildren?
A three-judge panel heard the last of the arguments on the question Wednesday, setting up a months-long wait for the financial fate of school funding for a generation of Kansas children.
Closing arguments ended in a school funding lawsuit brought by a coalition of districts across the state against the Kansas Legislature. A win by the school districts could force the state to put hundreds of millions of dollars more into K-12 funding.
"You can't just look at this and say, 'They provided a piece of chalk and a blackboard to every kid in Kansas,' " said attorney Alan Rupe, who is representing the school districts. "It's not just opportunity. It's opportunity with accomplishment that is key."
Rupe argued that the Kansas Legislature arbitrarily cut school funding as it handed out $500 million in annual tax breaks.
"There's no constitutional obligation for tax cuts," Rupe said. "There's a constitutional obligation for funding education."
Arthur Chalmers, a Wichita lawyer representing the state, said lawmakers hardly acted spitefully. The cuts came as an economic crisis settled in the state. The money, he said, wasn't there.
"Do not assume," Chalmers told the judges, "the Legislature has a bunch of monsters that want to ruin Kansas education."
The state hasn't shirked its duty, he said. Rather, he argued legislators had to prioritize spending and shifted the state budget in a way that left adequate schools intact. If it hadn't, he said, the results would show in the state's accreditation process for schools.
The monthlong trial included nearly 1,000 exhibits and testimony from about 45 witnesses. Witnesses included teachers, superintendents and researchers. Plaintiffs include Kansas City, Kan., and Gardner-Edgerton school districts, but a verdict could affect every schoolroom in Kansas.
Kansas City, Kan., School District Superintendent Cynthia Lane caught the attention of the courtroom on the first day of testimony when she told the judges that she knows the vast majority of the district's high school graduates are not ready for college. Only 24 percent ever reach their sophomore year in college.
"It keeps me up at night, frankly, to know that almost four out of every 10 kids are not meeting the standards that we have set as a state and a nation," she said. "It's very troubling."
Lane told the court that money makes a difference. Children in her district come in knowing about 5,000 to 10,000 words compared with about 30,000 in a typical middle class family. But, she said, they can learn if the resources are there.
A $4 million federal turnaround grant has been credited for improving student achievement at Emerson Elementary in Kansas City, Kan. Three years ago, only 35 percent of the students met the state's reading standards. Now about 85 percent hit that mark.
That shows the need, Rupe said, for money to lower class sizes, to pay for professional development for better teacher training, and to extend learning days and support staff.
"When you add money it improves," Rupe said. "When you take it away, it decreases."
Chalmers said overall spending for schools hasn't decreased. Any losses in state financing have been made up with federal grants, local option budgets and other expenditures.
But those dollars, Rupe said, aren't distributed evenly to schools. So not all schools can expect federal spending to fill holes left by state cuts, he said.
"I guess if we include all funding," he said facetiously, "we have to include all the teachers who don't have enough supplies and go out and buy their own supplies, too."
The case will take months for the judges to decide, and probably will be appealed.