A Primer On The School Funding Case Before The Kansas Supreme Court

Nov 5, 2015

The seven justices of the Kansas Supreme Court hear arguments Friday in a school funding case that could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
Credit Kansas Supreme Court

On Friday morning, the Kansas Supreme Court hears arguments in a school funding case that's gone on for years and could lead to the Legislature being ordered to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on public education.

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about the case, and some of the history.

I can't remember a time when there wasn't a school funding court case in Kansas. Why is that?

It's because there has been school funding litigation in the state going back to 1972. That's when a Johnson County court found the education funding system unconstitutional. The Legislature responded by passing the School District Equalization Act (SDEA). A district court ruled in 1991 that the Kansas Constitution mandated that the Legislature give all students "an educational opportunity equal to that owed every other child.” In other words, an equal education for all.

In 1992 lawmakers passed the School District Finance and Quality Performance Act (SDFQPA) which put the bulk of school finance in the hands of the state rather than at the local level.

Then what happened?

In 2001 some school districts successfully challenged the SDFQPA, claiming the state was underfunding some portions of the funding formula. The case is called Montoy v. State. After a trial and appeal, the state Supreme Court upheld the ruling and ordered the Legislature in 2004 to spend more on public education.

So that was the end of it, right?

Hardly. Lawmakers responded to the court order by allocating money for schools, but not enough. In 2005 the school districts in the case returned to court and the justices quickly ordered the Legislature to put another $290 million into the funding formula. Based on a study by the state, the high court still had concerns that education was being underfunded. In the 2006 session, lawmakers appropriated another $466 million to be spent over the next three years. For now, the court was satisfied. 

What do you mean, "for now?"

So by 2010 the Legislature cut most state spending because of the recession, including per pupil state aid. This did not sit well with dozens of school districts across Kansas, so they went back to court and asked to reopen the Montoy case. The high court said no to that, but a brand new case was filed in November 2010. That one is called Gannon v. State of Kansas and alleged again that the Legislature's funding of public education was unconstitutional. Almost five years to the day later, we're back at the state Supreme Court. 

By the way, who is Gannon?

It's Luke Gannon, a student in Wichita and one of 32 named plaintiffs in the case. Like all court cases, it takes its name from that of the first plaintiff in the complaint.

What are the issues?

There are two: equalization and adequacy, and they've been combined into the current case. Under the Kansas Constitution, the state is required to provide the same educational opportunity to all children in the state. Your chance for a good education should be the same in a wealthy school district or a poor one. The Gannon lawsuit charged, and a lower court has ruled, that the Legislature has failed to provide that equal funding. The trial court suggested it may take another $50 million to attain equalization.

Adequacy is a little trickier. Article 6 of the state Constitution is quite clear about the state's obligation to fund public education. But the high court found an "adequacy component" in that clause, and to judge adequacy the court adopted the Rose standards.

Wait. Who the heck is Rose?

That's a whole other post, but suffice it to say it comes from a 1989 Kentucky Supreme Court case that spelled out, in somewhat vague terms, what constitutes an adequate education. Rose has been adopted by five other state supreme courts.

What's at stake with the adequacy issue?

A lot more money. The trial court did not put a specific dollar amount on how much it would cost for the state to meet the Rose standards but suggested it could be more than $500 million. The high court has split the case in two. The Friday arguments will only deal with equity. A ruling is expected sometime after the new year.

In what many believe is a nod to the contentious politics surrounding school funding, the justices will deal with adequacy later. The first briefs are due Nov. 23, with oral arguments set for next spring, probably after the Legislative session.

Since this is education in Kansas, there must be politics.

Plenty. Last year, many observers believe lawmakers passed the block grant funding scheme to head off the court case. Some legislators believed that if the previous school funding formula, which had been found unconstitutional, was dead, the court challenge could not continue. The courts thought otherwise, so the case continues.

Conservatives have charged for years that the Supreme Court has no business saying how much should be spent on education. Some have even said the Legislature should ignore any ruling that requires more spending, which  would trigger a constitutional crisis. This could also become an issue in legislative elections next year in the state, with conservatives campaigning for a change in the way Supreme Court justices are chosen.