Yesterday the Kansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments to see if changes made by the legislature and signed by Governor Sam Brownback in early April go far enough to remedy underfunding of public education and unequal distribution of state funds to support public schools. The Court will decide, based on documents submitted and yesterday’s arguments from the plaintiffs and the state defendants, whether to shut down Kansas’ public schools for the upcoming school year, as threatened, or whether school funding in the state now passes constitutional muster. In its February decision, the Kansas Supreme Court said it would order the state’s schools shut down on June 30, if the legislature and governor neglected to find enough money by June 30 to fund schools adequately and to distribute the funding equitably.
It is very hard to be bored by a school funding lawsuit in your own state, particularly if you have children in school and you know the school librarian and school nurse will be shared by several schools or your high school will lose its orchestra if the case goes the wrong way. When a contested school finance case moves through your own state’s courts, you are even likely to find people arguing about it in bars, because its resolution will affect two things people really care about—their children and their taxes. If it’s somebody else’s state, however, particularly if its way out in Kansas, well that might seem like their problem—their taxes—their children.
But here’s the thing: what’s the matter with Kansas school funding is likely also the matter in your state. So it’s very much worth paying at least a little attention. While it used to be pretty widely accepted that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses and that the tax code ought to be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means, these days such principles are being widely questioned. Like Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, Kansas has all-Republican government without bipartisan checks and balances—a Republican governor and both houses of the legislature dominated by Republican majorities. And just as what’s happened in a lot of these states, Governor Sam Brownback led his legislature to slash taxes—a $1.1 billion tax cut enacted in 2012 and even more in 2013. The economy, according to trickle-down orthodoxy, was supposed to grow as a result and yield more revenue to the state, but the plan didn’t work. States like Kansas are broke and can’t see how to afford to fix public education. Not all the states have pending lawsuits, but school funding is a problem not only in the one party states that have embraced austerity budgeting; it is also a long running problem in other places including Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.
Here is what has been happening this year in Kansas. In February the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed an earlier trial court decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas, and found the state’s school funding system unconstitutional. The Education Law Center explains the February decision: “In its decision, the Court explained that Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution requires the legislature to ‘make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state…’ Article 6 contains both adequacy and equity requirements. It necessitates that the legislature provide enough funds to ensure public school students receive a constitutionally adequate education and that the funds’ distribution does not result in unreasonable wealth-based disparities among districts.” The Education Law Center continues: “The Court had found an earlier funding system inequitable, and the legislature revised the system and brought it into compliance with the Constitution during its 2014 session. However, in its 2015 session the legislature reversed itself, and the Gannon plaintiffs returned to the Kansas courts, arguing that the funding system had become unfair (inequitable) and therefore unconstitutional again.” Although in 2014, the legislature had made school funding adequate and equitable and satisfied the Court, in 2015, according to the editorial board of the Kansas City Star, the state gave up the formula it had recently devised and switched to school district block grants.
In March of this year, to satisfy the Court, the legislature devised a new plan, and Governor Brownback signed it into law in early April. Press coverage of the new plan indicates that it cuts funding to some school districts but then awards it back without returning as much funding as the poorest districts desperately need. It also includes a hold-harmless guarantee that ensures that no district will fall below the current funding level. According to an April report in the Kansas City Star, a central problem is that because not enough total funds are available in this state that has drastically reduced taxes, it would be impossible to help the poorest districts without taking money from wealthier districts, and that, of course, is politically unpopular: “Fully funding equalization would have required spending an additional $38 million….” The plan also allows school districts to raise local property taxes, likely to be an easier undertaking in the wealthier school districts.
A recent analysis by John Hanna for the Associated Press explains the political dilemma legislators faced in March as they developed the new plan required by the court: “It was necessary for legislators to prevent any school district from losing money even as they sought to improve funding for poorer ones, the state’s attorneys argue in court filings… Legislative committees considered proposals to boost total money to poor districts by taking funds away from as many as 100 districts. But those measures garnered little support—partly because districts in Johnson County, the state’s most populous, faced big losses.” Johnson County is home to the school districts of some of Kansas City’s well-off suburbs.
Alan Rupe, the attorney for the plaintiff school districts, Kansas City, Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City, is quoted as condemning the plan for its inherent inequity: ‘The state did not eliminate the distance between the districts caused by naturally occurring wealth disparities… It worsened the disparities and put the districts even further apart. They’ve done the worst possible thing. They have left the valleys where they are and they have increased the mountaintops… I don’t think for a minute that creating greater disparity is going to satisfy the court. It’s sure not going to satisfy the plaintiffs.” Yesterday Rupe told the justices that they have the power, “to restrict other spending in state government until or unless the schools receive other funds.” Schools must be funded as essential public services, he said, according to the state constitution.
Whatever the outcome of the case currently before the Kansas Supreme Court, the Kansas City Star rates as zero the chance that the decision will solve the school funding problems across Kansas: “Another legal battle is under way over whether the state must spend an extra $550 million a year to fund K-12 schools.”
The decision expected by early June from the supreme court of Kansas will be important—whether legislative tinkering earlier this spring makes Kansas school funding satisfy the state constitution or whether the court will shut down public education in Kansas as of June 30 as a motive for the legislature to make more effort.