Shawnee Mission Parents Take School Funding Case To U.S. Supreme Court

Nov 22, 2015

Parents from Shawnee Mission school district in Johnson County, Kansas are taking their school funding lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Credit Patrick McKay / Flickr -- CC

While the Gannon school funding case now before the Kansas Supreme Court has garnered most of the attention, there's another school finance case out there and that one has gone all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case, known as Petrella, was filed by parents in the Shawnee Mission School District in 2010 against the state. The parents argue the district should be able to raise unlimited local tax money to pay for education. The state right now caps how much money can be spent locally as a way to equalize education for all Kansas kids.

The parents lost at trial and on appeal, so now they're trying to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

“This case involves members of a community banding together to ask not what the State can do for them, but what they can do together to avert a school funding crisis,” the parents argue in their brief.

They claim the state law that limits how much local taxpayers can spend on their children's education is a "perverse form of reverse equalization".

“In a nation founded on liberty, self-governance, equal opportunity, and local initiative, it is perhaps surprising that any state would prohibit local citizens from banding together to improve their public schools through collective civic action at no cost to the citizens of other localities in the State and without harm to their children,” the brief states. 

The argument is simple: Under Kansas law, Shawnee Mission gets less state aid because it has high property values and more prosperous students. The parents like to compare money sent to Shawnee Mission to that sent to Kansas City, Kansas. In their brief they say KCK gets $8,915 per student while Shawnee Mission gets just $4,514. Of course, KCK has many more students who live in poverty, have special needs or are English language learners, so they're more expensive to educate.

The brief says the free speech and equal protection rights of the Shawnee Mission students are being violated by the cap.

The parents have some high-powered legal talent: Kansas City's biggest law firm, Shook Hardy & Bacon, has agreed to represent the parents essentially at no charge and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, one of the nation's preeminent constitutional law scholars, is also on the case.

The school districts suing the state for more money in the Gannon case said in their brief to the Supreme Court that the Shawnee Mission parents want to upend the current system and replace it with an “every district for itself” school funding system.

“Petitioners filed this lawsuit in federal court in an effort to gain what neither the Kansas courts nor the Kansas Legislature would grant them: unlimited taxing authority to raise unlimited local tax money to be used to fund public education in their district alone,” the Gannon brief says.

The Shawnee Mission District, in support of the parents,  filed a friend-of-the-court brief when the Petrella case was on appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but it has not filed one with the U.S. Supreme Court. 

According to the Supreme Court online docket, the justices are set to discuss whether to take the Petrella case on Dec. 4. Lawyers in the case say the justices will likely announce their decision the following Monday, Dec. 7.

The likelihood that the justices will hear the case is slim. The Supreme Court hears fewer than 1 percent of the 10,000 cases that come before it every year.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.