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University students seek to protect Kansas higher education funding from cuts resulting from K-12 lawsuit

Justices return from recess during hearings before the Kansas Supreme Court in Topeka, Kan., Thursday, May 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

— An organization that represents students at the six state universities in Kansas is seeking to protect higher education funding from potential cuts associated with an ongoing lawsuit over K-12 school finances.

The Students' Advisory Committee, an organization within the Kansas Board of Regents, filed a motion Wednesday with the state Supreme Court, seeking permission to file a friend of the court brief in the case.

The student organization argues that university budgets should not be cut in order to pay for any increase needed in K-12 funding, because the provision in the Kansas Constitution that requires the state to adequately fund public schools should also apply to state colleges and universities.

"We simply want the court to initially determine whether the provision of the Constitution that talks about providing for fully funded public education is limited only to K through 12, or if it in fact includes all students at public institutions in the state," Mark Johnson, an attorney representing the group, said in a phone interview Thursday.

The language in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, which was approved by voters in 1966, is written broadly, saying that the Legislature "shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."

"As I read the Constitution, it doesn't say the Legislature only has to fund kindergarten through 12th-grade students," Johnson said. "There are about 100,000 students who attend Regents-governed universities in the state, and we think that ought to be taken into consideration as well."

The Students' Advisory Committee is made up of student body presidents from each of the state's six universities.

Kansas State University student body president Jack Ayres, the current chairman of the committee, said in a news release that university students are already paying a high price as a result of budget cuts over the last several years.

“State support for higher education has declined over the last decade, forcing tuition rates to increase, increasing the economic burden on students," he said. "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.”

In the current lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, the Supreme Court has already ruled twice — most recently in October — that current funding levels for public schools are inadequate and unconstitutional.

And although the court has not said how much additional money is needed, the Kansas State Board of Education has put the figure at approximately $600 million a year in additional funding, the same amount former Gov. Sam Brownback built into his budget proposal this year.

Johnson said university students are concerned that if lawmakers need to find an additional $600 million for schools, much of it will come at the expense of universities, which he said have already taken severe budget cuts.

"What it comes down to is that the students at the public universities are helping pay for the K-12 funding that's supposed to be paid for by the taxpayers," he said. "Tuition is going up, services are being cut, there are fewer professors, fewer courses and shorter terms. Literally, the term is shorter than it has been in the past."

Matt Keith, a spokesman for the Board of Regents, confirmed that in 2009, the board approved a policy change slightly reducing the minimum length of academic terms to 146 instructional hours, spread out over 16 weeks, and five final exam days.

Kansas lawmakers, meanwhile, have commissioned a new cost analysis to determine how much it should cost to comply with the Supreme Court's order for K-12 education. That report is due to be submitted to the Legislature next week.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said it is too early to say how much additional money may be needed for public schools until that report is available.

He also said it is not a foregone conclusion that any additional money needed for K-12 education will come at the expense of higher education.

"Right now, I'm even working with the Board of Regents, trying to have some type of reinstatement of the 4 percent cut that they experienced back in 2016," Waymaster said in an interview Thursday, referring to the allotment cuts Brownback ordered that year in order to balance the Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, whose district includes most of the University of Kansas campus, also said it's not certain that university budgets will be cut to pay for increased public school funding.

"Not if I can help it," Highberger said. "Fortunately, the short-term revenue estimates look pretty good, so I think we're in pretty decent shape for this year. The outyears — I'm not quite sure how to address that."

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