Kansas high court: Current school funding unconstitutional

By: Associated Press and KAKE.com Email
By: Associated Press and KAKE.com Email
The Kansas Supreme Court says the state

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court says the state's current public school funding levels are unconstitutional.

In Friday's much-anticipated ruling, the court said Kansas' poor school districts were harmed when the state made the decision to cut certain payments when tax revenues declined during the Great Recession.

The court also sent the case back for more review to determine what the adequate amount of funding should be.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010 on behalf of parents and school districts who argued the state had harmed students because spending cuts resulted in lower test scores.

State attorneys maintained that legislators did their best to minimize cuts to education.

You can read the full opinion by clicking here.

Below is the full news release issued by the Office of Judicial Administration:

Supreme Court issues opinion in public education financing case
Appeal No. 109,335: Luke Gannon, et al v. State of Kansas

TOPEKA—The Supreme Court today issued its unanimous opinion in a dispute over K-12 public education financing. The court declared certain school funding laws fail to provide equity in public education as required by the Kansas Constitution and returned the case to Shawnee County District Court to enforce the court’s holdings. The court further ordered the three-judge panel that presided over the trial of the case to reconsider whether school funding laws provide adequacy in public education – as also required by the constitution.

The plaintiffs in Gannon v. State of Kansas are four public school districts and 31 individuals. Each district lost funding beginning in fiscal year 2009, after the Legislature reduced appropriations for various categories of school funds, including base state aid per pupil, capital outlay state aid, and supplemental general state aid. The plaintiffs claimed continued reductions in school funding violated the education article of the Kansas Constitution—Article 6—which directs the Legislature to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” The plaintiffs also claimed they were denied equal protection and due process.

The Supreme Court dismissed the individual plaintiffs for lack of legal standing and determined the school districts could not pursue equal protection or due process claims. But the court ruled the districts had standing to bring claims under Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution. The court reasoned the districts sufficiently alleged the funding reductions had undermined their ability to perform the districts’ constitutional duty to “maintain, develop, and operate local public schools.”

The court also rejected the state’s argument that the court had no authority to decide whether the Legislature had underfunded K-12 education because it is strictly a political question, rather than a constitutional mandate. The court ruled that the judiciary has both the duty and the authority to review whether acts of the Legislature comply with constitutional standards. “The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore, or waive this duty,” the court said.

The court’s decision also clarified that the Kansas Constitution contains at least two separate components for public education: adequacy and equity. The adequacy requirement is met when the structure and implementation of the state’s K-12 public education financing system is “reasonably calculated” to have all students meet or exceed certain minimum educational standards. The court also said the three-judge panel’s test for adequacy was incorrect because it exclusively focused on cost studies. Therefore, the court reversed and remanded the adequacy issue to the panel so it can apply the proper test and make appropriate findings.

Regarding equity, the court said Article 6 does not require absolute funding equality among districts, but it emphasized that “school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.” Applying this test, the court concluded the state had established unconstitutional funding disparities among districts when it withheld capital outlay state aid payments and reduced supplemental general state aid payments to which certain districts with less property wealth were otherwise entitled in fiscal years 2010, 2011, and 2012.

The court set a July 1, 2014, deadline to give the Legislature an opportunity to provide for equitable funding for public education. If by then the Legislature fully funds capital outlay state aid and supplemental general state aid as contemplated by present statutes, i.e., without withholding or prorating payments, the panel will not be required to take additional action on those issues. But if the Legislature takes no action by July 1, 2014, or otherwise fails to eliminate the inequity, the panel must take appropriate action to ensure the inequities are cured.

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The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to release a much-anticipated ruling that will determine whether the state's $3 billion annual expenditure for education is enough.

The ruling being released Friday could also determine whether Gov. Sam Brownback's recent tax cuts can be sustained.

Parents and four school districts sued Kansas in 2010, saying lawmakers reneged on promises to provide a certain funding level for public schools and that the state's education system was being harmed.

A district court ruled last year that Kansas needed to increase school funding by at least $440 million, but the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Like other Republican-led states, Kansas enacted tax cuts to help stimulate economic growth. The cuts have reduced the amount of available funding to comply with a court order.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on the Gannon v. State of Kansas case in October 2013. The unusual five-month delay in releasing a decision has delayed work by the legislature on the next state budget. It may have even sparked a bill setting time limits for state courts to issue opinions.

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