5 Themes At The Heart Of Kansas’ School Finance Lawsuit

Jul 13, 2017

The Gannon v. Kansas lawsuit is in its seventh year. In that time, the case has led to repeated rulings against the state for underfunding schools and responses by lawmakers in the form of appropriations bills.

What’s it all about? Here are five issues central to the battle.

Significant numbers of Kansas children lack basic math and reading skills.

This is particularly true for students from socioeconomic groups that are historically disadvantaged, including children from low-income families and children from racial and ethnic minorities.

When the Kansas Supreme Court struck down existing funding levels as unconstitutional in March, the justices emphasized the state’s responsibility to help fix student achievement. Standardized test results show that about one-quarter of Kansas students are struggling with math and reading, the justices noted. That includes half of the state’s African-American students, one-third of Hispanic students and one-third of students from low-income families. 

The concern that the state needs to provide more resources to support achievement for specific student groups isn’t new. It played a key role in another school finance lawsuit in the early to mid-2000s, Montoy v. Kansas. That case led in part to funding increases that target students with disabilities, from low-income families or learning English as a second language.

School resources available to children vary based on where they live.

That’s because local tax wealth varies. In the context of the state’s school finance formula, there are wealthier districts and poorer districts, meaning districts with more taxable property and those with less.

An example: Kaw Valley and Royal Valley, neighboring rural school districts north of Topeka that serve about 1,200 and 800 students respectively. Kaw Valley has one of the strongest tax bases in the state relative to the number of students it serves — a coal power plant falls within its boundaries. Royal Valley, which covers a few small towns, farmland and the Potawatomi Nation Reservation, has one of the weakest. A single mill of property tax generates more than $300,000 in Royal Valley but only a tenth as much in Royal Valley.

The state tries to even the playing field through extra state aid to districts with weaker local tax bases. The Gannon lawsuit partly revolves around the extent to which the state needs to do that.

Things were OK %u2014 as far as the courts were concerned. Then the recession hit.

Montoy v. Kansas pushed the state to ratchet up school funding by more than $750 million through a three-year plan that won court approval and finally put an end to that case, which, much like Gannon, had lasted several years.

Then the recession hit. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and her successor Mark Parkinson cut hundreds of millions of dollars from K-12 schools in 2009 and 2010. That made the state vulnerable to a fresh legal challenge from school districts whose concerns had been resolved by Montoy. In 2010 the Gannon lawsuit began.

Many educators became more frustrated after Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011 and pursued, together with the Legislature, deep cuts to income taxes instead of restoring the school finance plan that had been approved in the Montoy case.

With each passing year, operating schools costs more money.

School expenses and student enrollment continued to grow in Kansas, even though the Montoy plan fell by the wayside in 2009 and the state cut school funding.

Lawyers for the Gannon plaintiffs argue Kansas’ school funding has fallen hundreds of millions of dollars behind inflation. That’s a key sticking point between the state and school districts.

In June the Legislature voted to increase annual funding by nearly $300 million within two years. The state’s lawyers argue that’s enough to end the lawsuit, but the plaintiffs’ lawyers say it’s at the most just one-third of what is needed.

Inflation within those two years will eat up more than half of the nearly $300 million, they say, and another chunk will likely go toward raising stagnant teacher salaries, leaving little to bolster academic programs for struggling students.

The state’s lawyers reject those arguments. They point to a statistical analysis conducted for the Legislature this year that aimed to identify successful school districts based on academic measures, and then to check the districts’ spending levels. The state argues the $300 million plan is in line with spending practices at the 41 districts

The state has constitutional obligations to the children of Kansas.

The Kansas Constitution contains provisions related to the state’s duties regarding education, unlike some other government functions. This is the leverage that schools use to battle out K-12 funding at the Kansas Supreme Court.

The provision of the state constitution that frequently pops up in the school finance argument reads: “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

The state has argued in the past that the Legislature nevertheless has the power to decide how much to spend on schools — without judicial interference.

The courts disagree and have issued repeated rulings on school finance stretching as far back as the 1970s. Those rulings tend to home in on themes mentioned above: that educational opportunities should be adequate, that a child’s ZIP code shouldn’t determine access to quality schools and that local taxpayers in less wealthy districts shouldn’t face unreasonable tax burdens to try to offer adequate resources.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ