Kansas To Court: Stay Out Of School Funding

Nov 24, 2015

It is still unknown what the impact of the landmark Gannon school finance case will be, since the Kansas Supreme Court won't ultimately decide on it until sometime next year. 

What is clearer now, though, is the state's stance on what role the Court should play in determining funding for Kansas public education. In short, the state thinks the Court has no role. Briefs filed in Gannon Monday by the state essentially tell the Court to stay out of its legislative business. 

"This Court should not allow a small number of school districts to second guess the Legislature’s reasoned judgment," the state's brief reads. 

It goes on: "Surely the [sic] judgment of these senior legislative and executive officials about what is required procedurally in the Legislature to accomplish any school funding changes required by this Court’s Gannon decision should not be subject to judicial, school- employee or interest-group second-guessing."

By "school funding changes," the state is referring to the decision last legislative session by lawmakers in Topeka to adopt a block-grant funding model for public schools, ditching the funding formula the state had used for decades. 

Many, in fact, think that move by the legislature was an attempt to head off the case being made in Gannon that school funding in the state is unconstitutionally inequitable and inadequate. The plaintiff districts in the case, which include Kansas City, Kansas, argue the state has done such a poor job funding schools that schools cannot do their basic job of educating all students. 

The state, to say the least, disagrees. 

"The actual current evidence in fact demonstrates that Kansas schools are doing quite well," the brief says. "Kansas school funding is at record high levels, the test scores of Kansas students are above average, and the State is closing achievement gaps. Given this evidence, the Legislature could rationally conclude that the current levels of school funding are reasonably calculated to not only meet — but to exceed —the Rose standards."

The Rose standards are the result of a Kentucky court case from 1989 that first spelled out what made up an adequate education. Those standards have since been adopted by several other states, including Kansas. 

Many would quibble with some details in the state's argument. A district court this summer actually said the state's move to block grants lowered state spending on schools and that it was obligated to put more back into schools immediately to meet its constitutional responsibilities. 

And earlier this month, lawmakers and education experts clashed over data that seemed to indicate test scores rose and fell with funding levels. 

The state's brief in the Gannon case does leave an opening to critics. 

"Those who disagree with this process are free to criticize it, to challenge it, to attempt to alter it during future legislative sessions," it says. "But this Court should not permit their attempt to gain constitutional approval of the rejected policy judgments of the minority."

"This Court risks being indefinitely and intimately involved in the Kansas school funding system in ways that ensure conflict between the branches and do not promote the long-term interests of any branch."

Another thing that is clear after this week: this simmering conflict between the state and the Supreme Court is bound to continue. 

The plaintiff school districts will file their response by Jan. 12. Oral arguments on the adequacy question won't be until the spring although it's expected the high court will rule on the equity portion of Gannon before the end of the next legislative session.

Kyle Palmer, a former teacher, is KCUR's morning newscaster. You can get daily headlines and news updates if you follow him @kcurkyle