Kansas Supreme Court Declares School Funding Equitable; More Money Needed for Adequate System

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.

Kansas Supreme Court Rejects Education on the Cheap; Affirms Equity and Adequacy

I have been reading the introduction and many of the short essays that make up David Berliner and Gene Glass’s new book, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools.  Many of the myths Berliner and Glass explore are about educating on the cheap.  The book has driven me to reflect on why we are so eager to go for the “low taxes” argument these days.

Have we lost our sense of common purpose and public obligation?  Have we retreated so far into our gated communities, become so blinded by privilege and inequality that we’ve forgotten the needs of other people’s children?  Or maybe it’s because we see the children in public schools as other people’s children.  Or we believe the myth that money really doesn’t affect school achievement. Do we think breaking the unions or going for two-year teachers trained in five-week crash courses will suffice, because schools will be less expensive if the teachers are cheaper?  Maybe we are in awe of technology and believe those who tell us we can save money by cutting the number of teachers in half if we double the number of computers or tablets.  Or maybe in a consumer society that worships celebrity and glitterati, we’d just rather spend taxes on sports stadiums.  And anyway, children are resilient.

Such thoughts were my personal context for receiving the good news about Friday’s very important Kansas Supreme Court decision on school funding.  At issue in Gannon v. State of Kansas was a 16.5 percent cut in Kansas education funding since 2008, “accelerated” according to a recent op ed in the NY Times, “by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.”  Just over a year ago, a trial court found for the parent-plaintiffs, declaring that cuts to school funding reduced per-pupil expenditures far below a level suitable to educate children under the requirements of the state constitution of Kansas.  The case was appealed by the state, and the Kansas Supreme Court released its finding last Friday, March 7.

The Education Law Center explains the significance of Friday’s decision by which the Kansas Supreme Court “upheld the right of Kansas students to educational opportunity and reaffirmed the court’s… pivotal role in upholding the Kansas Constitution.” The NY Times elaborates: “The court rejected the contention that it lacked the authority to make decisions on school funding, saying that it has the duty to determine whether legislative acts comply with the Kansas Constitution. ‘The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore or waive this duty,’ the decision said.”

The Education Law Center explains that the court upheld the principal of equity by reiterating “the Kansas requirement that all ‘school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.'”   According to the NY Times, in its decision last Friday, the Court ordered the legislature by July 1 to, “appropriate tens of millions of dollars in payments to poorer districts to make the school system more equitable.”

Also at issue in this case was the definition of adequate state school funding.  The Court reiterated the need for the state to raise the level of school funding to provide a quality education for the children of Kansas, but it sent this part of the case back to the lower court to reconsider how much is enough and to give plaintiffs the opportunity to present more evidence.  There is considerable speculation that Kansas will need to raise taxes to meet the requirement for equity and eventually to bring school funding to a level deemed adequate.

A publication called The Wire comments on how the decision conflicts with Governor Brownback’s agenda:  “The decision is probably not so great news for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s ambitions to lead an ‘American Renaissance’ by making his state a model for lowering taxes and reducing government.  Brownback outlined his vision in January during his State of the State speech, where the conservative added that he believed Kansas’s governing strategy would allow people to ‘realize their God-given potential’ and that ‘our dependence is not on Big Government but on a Big God that loves us and lives within us.'”

Of course Kansas’s school funding decision will affect only Kansas.  It would be nice to think that its subject—education on the cheap—is a problem only for Kansas, but that’s just not true.  Cuts to education funding in Kansas are a lot like what’s been happening in my state, Ohio, where two weeks ago the Plain Dealer published a 30-year history of Ohio tax cutting:  “In 1985, legislators…  cut the income tax by 15 percent over three years.  Effective in 1987, they cut the income tax again.  In 1996, they created a mechanism to cut the income tax when Ohio runs a surplus.  In 1997, they indexed the personal exemption to inflation; and in 2005, they cut the income tax by 21 percent over five years.  What’s more, Ohio’s current budget, signed by Kasich last June, cuts the income tax by 10 percent over three years.”  It should not be surprising that Ohio school districts are more and more dependent on their capacity to raise local revenue and that tuition has risen steadily at all of our state universities.

Paying for education is also a hot topic in New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo refuses even to let New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio move forward with his plan to tax people in the city with incomes over $500,000 annually to pay for universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs for students in middle school. Governor Cuomo is running for re-election, and a statewide tax cut is to be the centerpiece of his campaign.

Why Is NY Times Worrying about School Funding in Kansas?

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities thirteen states have cut per-student education funding by more than 10 percent since the recession began five years ago.  The top four school finance slashers are Oklahoma, which has cut funding for K-12 public education by 22.7 percent, Alabama by 20.1 percent, Arizona by 17.2 percent, and Kansas by 16.5 percent.

In a 2006 decision, Montoy v. State, the supreme court of Kansas “ordered cost-based, sufficient, and equitable funding,” “based upon actual costs to educate children,” according to the Education Law Center (here, here, and here).  However, the legislature failed to fund the remedy fully, and as the economy of Kansas began to recover from the 2008 recession, Governor Sam Brownback and the legislature passed a five-year $3.7 billion tax cut instead of increasing the amount of money for public education.

In response, in 2010 plaintiffs pushed back, filing Gannon v. State, and leading to a unanimous trial court decision early in January 2013 in support of more funding for K-12 public schools.  The trial court demanded  that the state immediately increase investment in  education by at least $440 million.  The state, of course, appealed , and last week the supreme court in Kansas heard oral arguments.

Because Kansas is so very far in every way from New York, I was stunned to see the New York Times take the unusual step of editorializing in this case: “The court should quickly put priorities in order by affirming a lower-court ruling last January that found the state ‘completely illogical’ in using the new revenues to provide tax cuts while arguing it had inadequate resources for educating schoolchildren.”

Because all the states have different education funding formulas and because it all gets to seeming like an arcane bunch of numbers, I think it is easy to gloss over the school finance inadequacy and inequity in other states where the cuts don’t affect my own children or  neighbors or community.  Problems for those other places can seem pretty far away.  But when there is school finance trouble in my own state, the issues feel more personal than almost anything else. The school funding formula determines whether we have a school nurse, a school librarian, a middle school orchestra, a class in Calculus, Advanced Placement chemistry.  Will the kindergarten class have 21 or 32 children?  Will high school English teachers teach four classes of 25 or five classes of 35, a difference that will likely determine whether the teacher can assign and read enough essays to teach adolescents how to write.  Will I as a parent have to spend months trying to pass a local school levy merely to replace programs eliminated when the state legislature cut the funding?

It should be a cause for concern everywhere in America that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “despite some improvements in overall state revenues, schools in around a third of states are entering the new school year (2013-2014) with less state funding than they had last year.” I am delighted to see the New York Times speaking to disturbing threats across the nation to K-12 public education, threats that derive not only from the lingering impact of the 2008 recession, but also from tax cuts by Tea Party-dominated legislatures and governors and the implications of the federal sequester for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.