Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Kansas found that the state’s school funding system remains unconstitutional, but gave the state a year to increase the funding. This is a relief to families, as the Court had threatened to force the legislature into a special summer session to increase school funding or shut down school altogether for the fall. It also is a relief for those looking for justice for the state’s children because it means the Court has retained jurisdiction in the case—to ensure that the legislature will have to find enough money to provide for the needs of children in the state’s public schools.
The case of Gannon v. Kansas preceded Sam Brownback’s tax-slashing tenure as Kansas’ governor, but Brownback’s tax cuts only made matters more desperate for public school districts in Kansas, and particularly for the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.
Writing on June 26, school finance expert Derek Black explains what just happened in Kansas: “Yesterday, the Kansas Supreme Court issued its third decision in two years regarding the state’s school funding practices. Yet again, the court found that the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty… The two big issues before the court were the equality of its financing system and the adequacy. The court found that the state had finally developed a plan that would achieve equitable access to school funding.”
The Court credits the Legislature with addressing inequity, resulting from the fact that the state has been expecting school districts to be able to raise local funding through something called a Local Option Budget (LOB). Wealthier school districts could afford to do so; very poor districts have not been able sufficiently to supplement the state’s contribution. Black explains: “Under the prior law, not all local districts had the capacity to meet their LOB targets. The new law, according to the court, cures the problem by taking into account the percentage of at-risk students a district serves. Those with higher percentages will calculate their LOB requirement (and the funds they are entitled to from the state) differently than other districts. In short, high-need districts will receive more from the state and be expected to generate less locally.”
While The Court approved this system as the path to equity, the issue of inadequacy of funding remains. In other words, despite that last year the Legislature raised taxes to offset the revenue catastrophe caused by Sam Brownback’s big experiment with supply-side, tax-slashing economics, the state is still suffering from inadequate revenue. Brownback had predicted that his tax cuts would grow the economy, but his hypothesis was wrong. Now it is taking years for the state to catch up.
Reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star explain the situation for the 2018-2019 school year: “The Kansas Supreme Court ruled… that a new school funding plan is still inadequate, but gave the Legislature another year to fix it. ‘The State has not met the adequacy requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,’ the court ruling said. But if lawmakers add money to compensate for inflation Kansas ‘can bring the K-12 public education financing system into constitutional compliance.’… The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Legislature must meet two tests to satisfy a state constitutional mandate to provide ‘suitable’ education funding: It must be adequate, meaning that there’s enough total money in the system for schools to provide a quality education. And it must be equitable, meaning that the state resources are allocated to give poor children the opportunity to obtain an education of roughly similar quality to what’s provided in wealthy districts.”
Retaining jurisdiction over the case, the Court will consider it again on April 15, 2019, “when both sides will have to file reports on whether they think the Legislature has corrected the remaining constitutional issues.”
In Kansas the Supreme Court has provided the kind of checks and balances that are missing across many of the 26 all-Red states, whose legislators and governors doggedly pursue anti-tax dogma. That is why many far right politicians in Kansas have come to believe the Supreme Court itself is the problem. The reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star quote Susan Wagle, the Senate President and a Wichita Republican: “Today the unelected bureaucrats of the Kansas Supreme Court chose to continue with the endless cycle of school litigation, leading us down the road to an unavoidable tax hike… When Kansas is on par with Nancy Pelosi’s California for sky-high property taxes and families are fleeing the state, we can thank the Kansas Supreme Court.” Senator Wagle and her colleagues are pushing for a constitutional amendment to remove court oversight and make education funding the sole responsibility of the legislature.
What the theoretical discussion of adequacy and equity of school funding misses is the impact on the daily experiences children and schoolteachers. Kansas is one of 12 states identified last November by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities where the per-pupil school funding remained lower than before the great recession in 2008. Several of the others—Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, West Virginia, and North Carolina—are places where teachers walked out in massive protests this spring. We listened in those states to the teachers’ stories of huge classes, scarcity of counselors and support services, outdated textbooks, pared-down curriculum, and paltry, non-competitive salaries. We need to replay those stories mentally as we read about the Kansas court battle for better school funding.
On a a theoretical level, however, Kansas is a good example of the importance of checks and balances. It is a place where the judicial branch of government is putting a stop to a radical anti-tax experiment launched by the executive and legislative branches. That is how government is supposed to work.