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Kansas students push importance of funding higher education

March 21, 2018

TOPEKA, Kan. — A student committee of the Kansas Board of Regents is taking steps to ask the state Supreme Court for additional funding for higher education.

The Students' Advisory Committee, on which the student body president of Pittsburg State University serves, filed an application on Wednesday to submit an amicus curiae brief related to Gannon v. Kansas, which deals with constitutional obligations for funding of K-12 education. If the application is approved by the court, the student committee will submit the brief to argue that the Kansas Constitution concerns all levels of public education, not strictly K-12 education.

"State support for higher education has declined over the last decade, forcing tuition rates to increase, increasing the economic burden on students," said Jack Ayres, chair of the committee and the student body president of Kansas State University, in a statement. "We ask the state Supreme Court to not forget about higher education when deliberating what is an adequate level of funding for education. We don't believe that additional funding for K-12 should come at the expense of higher education."

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that legislators did not increase spending on K-12 public schools enough last year and ordered a bigger increase. The court rejected the state's arguments that a new law phasing in a $293 million increase in funding over two years was enough to provide a suitable education for every child. The state was projected to spend about $4.3 billion on aid to its 286 school districts during the 2018-19 school year under the new law.

The court's ruling was part of Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010 by four school districts. The districts have argued that the increase approved by lawmakers was at least $600 million short of what was necessary. Justices told lawmakers to write a new school funding law before July 2018.

'Strong impacts'

Cassandra Ngo, the Pitt State student body president, said the committee advocates on behalf of students attending Kansas Board of Regents institutions and typically makes higher education funding one of its top issues.

She said the committee originally intended to write an open letter to the state Supreme Court this year on the matter but were redirected toward filing an amicus brief, which would more likely be reviewed by justices.

"We're not saying that K-12 (education) shouldn't get funding," she told the Globe. "We're just saying that higher education funding has strong impacts in the state. ... I think that no matter how the court takes it, we've already made an impact. I'm really optimistic that the court will receive it well."

State Rep. Monica Murnan, D-Pittsburg, said she couldn't specifically address the committee's intent to file the amicus brief. But she said funding various departments and agencies within the state should not be an either/or situation.

"We as Kansans know that all of these issues are important, and we need to take the steps to ensure that we can meet the Supreme Court's ruling while shoring up our infrastructure that has been starved for many years," she said. "I consider higher education a critical component of that infrastructure."

State Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, said projections show revenues in the state to be up this year, although a clearer picture will emerge after people file their tax returns in April. He said the budget situation in Kansas is "starting to look positive," but he acknowledged that there are many holes that will need to be filled.

"We just need to get it right," he said. "We have a lot of things we have to prioritize. We have needs in DCF (the Kansas Department for Children and Families) with our foster care system; we have issues in our Medicaid system; higher education, we have not been able to give them back the cuts we've taken; our corrections department, we have issues with staffing. We have to look at the limited funds we have and all of our responsibilities, and we do have to prioritize."

The application was filed on behalf of the student committee by Mark P. Johnson, a lawyer in Kansas City, Missouri. Ngo said he is representing the committee pro bono.

All briefs in the lawsuit are due by April 30 to allow the court to make a decision in the case by June 30.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Across the state

The Kansas Board of Regents estimated that revenue from tuition at its six institutions — the University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, Emporia State University, Fort Hays State University and Pittsburg State University — would be approximately $736 million in the 2017-18 academic year. That included a 2.8 percent increase in tuition and a 2.7 percent increase in student fees at Pitt State.

The state cut higher education funding by a total of almost $30.7 million for the 2017 academic year, according to the board. Pitt State had lost a little more than $1 million because of the cuts. 

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