Kansas Court Rules State Violating Constitution in Education Funding Case


Last Updated: April 12, 2013
 

This article appeared in the April 2013 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

In a court order released in January the Sunflower State legislature was directed to fund public schools at $4,492 per pupil, about $600 higher per pupil than present levels, an amount that would require an additional $442 million. The order also barred future cuts to per-pupil spending.

The ruling was made by a three-judge panel working from the Shawnee County District Court. Justices on the panel represented geographically diverse areas of the state. The panel forum was at the behest of the Legislature. The plaintiffs, known as Gannon, are a coalition of 54 school districts representing rural and urban areas along with thirty-two representative school children.

Kansas lawmakers have steadily decreased aid to students since the onset of the recession. In 2010, a coalition of districts filed suit saying that schools were unable to provide a constitutionally sufficient education with the diminished funding. The plaintiffs also alleged that the effect of funding cuts was harsher in districts with the most challenging student populations.

Since the start of the recession, Kansas has cut state education spending, the largest source of funding for local school districts, by $745 per student, or more than 13 percent when adjusted for inflation.

Schools in the state have cut back on teachers, staff, and services to students, and some schools have been closed as funding steadily decreased.

Notably, the amount cited in the order was established by a finance study commissioned by the Legislature itself during the Montoy v. Kansas school finance case. The Kansas State Constitution requires the Legislature “to make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” In the 2005 Montoy ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court defined “suitable” funding to be the amount needed to cover the costs of providing all the educational services required by law.

The finance study guided a multi-year plan in which the Legislature agreed to raise base state aid per pupil to $4,492 for the 2009–10 school year and beyond. The Montoy case was closed in 2006 following this agreement. However, lawmakers began cutting back on agreed-upon amounts in 2009. 

Leaders in the state legislature blamed the recession for the reductions. But last year the legislature passed major tax cuts promoted by Governor Sam Brownback and simultaneously reduced school budgets.

This did not go unnoticed by the court, which said, “It seems completely illogical that the state can argue that a reduction in education funding was necessitated by the downturn in the economy and the state's diminishing resources and at the same time cut taxes further.”

The state further defended its actions by pointing to student performance. Here again, the court disagreed, noting that students in some subgroups are lagging, a fact which it said is masked by reports that average achievement levels across all student groups.

The court also noted low ACT scores, low graduation rates, and other measures that suggest Kansas students are not doing especially well. The court said: “the state has effectively asserted that all Kansas K–12 students have reached their apparent maximum and will continue to do so with less money.”

Governor Brownback called the decision "disappointing" and said: "Through today’s ruling, the courts are drastically increasing the property tax burden on every Kansan." Under Brownback’s proposed budget, schools would receive no increase in base state aid in the coming year and only a small increase in the year after that.

Some Republicans in the legislature are working to undo the effects of the ruling. Currently there are bills in both houses of the Kansas Legislature to achieve these ends. The Senate has passed an enabling law to place a constitutional amendment on state ballots. Senate Concurrent Resolution 1608 says that the financing of educational interests of the state is exclusively a legislative power, has passed the Senate and is moving to the House for a vote. Any such initiative must be adopted by two-thirds majorities in both chambers before being approved by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election to change the constitution.

A House bill attempts to define school finance adequacy independently of any judicial involvement, saying that it would be established when funding, including money spent on retirement benefits, is at least 50 percent of the state’s appropriations for the year from its general fund

Attorneys for the school districts have criticized the bills as attempted end runs around the court ruling. There have also been allegations that the potential constitutional ballot language is misleading. The proposed explanatory statement reads: "A vote against this proposition would retain the current provision in the Kansas constitution, which has been interpreted by the Kansas Supreme Court as empowering that court to order the Kansas Legislature to fund public schools in whatever amounts that the Kansas Supreme court may determine necessary."

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt asked the Kansas Supreme Court to appoint a mediator to resolve the case which would avoid a high court ruling. The state also asked that a July 1 implementation deadline be delayed.

Alan Rupe, attorney for Schools for Fair Funding, said in response to the request for mediation and the stay:

"We are opposed to any stay on the court’s ruling and the court's orders to adequately fund public education for school kids in Kansas City, Kansas and throughout the state. Our public school kids have been trying to learn in a system that the court has ruled is inadequately funded and unconstitutional. We cannot afford to let any more time pass without stepping up to the plate and adequately funding education in Kansas. Our kids and the Constitution are too important and we have plenty of reason to move quickly to fund education. But if the governor and leadership in the legislature want to mediate this and live up to their constitutional obligations, the school children of Kansas and the plaintiffs in this lawsuit welcome the discussion and their action."

The state had already appealed the ruling. However, the plaintiff districts also filed a cross-appeal, asking the Kansas Supreme Court to find that the funding system violates due process and equal protection, something the lower court refused to do. The school districts are also asking the high court to increase the aid award because the lower court did not consider updates to the original costing out study or measures of inflation.

In March, the Kansas high court ordered mediation of the dispute and appointed two mediators to help work out a settlement between the parties. The decision is the first time an appellate-level case will be mediated, and, as plaintiff’s attorneys noted, the case involves over half of the state’s budget. Briefs will still be filed by the parties, and the case remains on the Kansas Supreme Court calendar for October pending any agreement.

(Editor’s note:RPM has closely followed this case. See RSFN coverage here.)

Read more:

Read local coverage here:

Read the full decision here:

Governor Sam Brownback’s legislative proposal on school funding:

Coverage on legislative efforts around the decision:

Read about the mediation here:

Read about the districts’ appeal here:

 

Read more from the April 2013 Rural Policy Matters.