Court rules state's public funding unconstitutional
Updated On: Mar 07 2014 06:28:44 PM CST
The Kansas Supreme Court says the state's current public school funding levels are unconstitutional. It's a ruling that could affect your child's school and potentially your property taxes.
"We've been driving on fumes here and the funds in education aren't sufficient to educate Kansas kids to an adequate level," said Alan Rupe, one of the attorneys who represents the school districts that sued the state.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled on the latest school funding lawsuit Friday morning. The ruling says the state's current funding needs to change.
Both sides agree the 110 page ruling is complicated. With a July 1st deadline now looming over the legislature, lawmakers will have to figure out how to handle it quickly.
"K through 12 is 52% of the budget already," said State Senator Dan Kerschen, (R) Garden Plain. "That's a lot of dollars. So, obviously, it's important. I don't think anybody would say it's not important. That we agree on. That's not hard."
What could be hard for state lawmakers is figuring out how to do what the court is demanding.
In the ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court decided the state hasn't been equally funding schools since it began making cuts back in 2009.
It told the state to fix that by July 1st or the courts will fix it.
"It is a huge step and there's one more step left to go," said Rupe.
The same ruling sent part of the lawsuit back to the lower courts. That part dealt with whether the state was adequately funding education.
The lower court's original test only took into account cost. But the supreme court said it had to try again and consider factors like can schools successfully teach the basics and prepare students for more advanced training elsewhere.
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 entire ruling here: Gannon v. State Ruling
"Extended learning opportunities have disappeared," said Rupe. "We don't have summer school the way we used to. We don't have pre-school programs the way we used to. Parents and kids and teachers continue to complain about the class size."
The return to trial doesn't worry a lawyer for the schools.
"When we get back to the trial court and they re-look at the evidence they aren't going to have to look very far to come to the conclusion that it's still inadequate," said Rupe.
Sen. Kerschen sits on the State Senate's Education Committee. He says nothing about this is new to them.
"These issues are going forward regardless of what the court is doing," he said, referencing Senate Bills 277 and 305. "This court has brought it to the forefront."
But the ruling, which calls for the return of some $130 million to school budgets by July 1st, could affect other popular programs.
"Like all day kindergarten. Are we going to keep that or not?" asked Sen. Kerschen, who said he supports the Governor's proposal. "That's going to have a hard time making it now."
Schools could also get another $450 to $500 million a year in funding back after the second part of this case is re-tried in the lower courts.
“Overall, we think this is a great ruling for Wichita and Kansas kids,” said Lynn Rogers, USD 259 BOE member. “It upholds the concept that the State of Kansas is responsible for adequately and equitably funding our students’ education.”
Rogers said that the lawsuit is for all Kansas students and that they deserve a quality education regardless of where they live in the state.
“The education we provide is the foundation for our workforce and the future of Kansas,” said Superintendent John Allison. “If we don’t give our students a quality education now, we will pay for it in the future.”
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.