As dozens of Kansas school districts spar with the state over funding for public education, the term “Rose standards” has emerged as arcane but critical jargon among lawyers and judges, and surfaced over and over again in court documents.
Though the term has appeared in past school finance lawsuits in Kansas, following a March 2014 Kansas Supreme Court ruling, it is undeniably front and center in the ongoing Gannon v. Kansas wrangling.
The word “Rose” appeared 68 times in that court’s March school finance ruling, which struck down the state’s system as unconstitutional.
Now, attorneys for the state and Legislature await the court’s ruling on whether the Legislature’s $293 million funding increase to be phased in over the next two years is enough.
Below is a primer on where the Rose standards concept came from and what it means.
Where does ‘Rose’ come from?
The term refers to a 1989 ruling by the Kentucky Supreme Court in a case called Rose v. Council for Better Education that focused on whether the state was meeting its constitutional mandates regarding public education.
Scholars of education law have described Rose v. Council as a turning point in school finance litigation — one of three critical cases at the tail end of the 1980s that took a new tack. The issues at the heart of Rose have since emerged repeatedly in cases across the country.
William Thro, the general counsel for the University of Kentucky, reflected on this impact in a 2010 paper.
“For the first time,” Thro writes, “courts invalidated educational finance systems not because the expenditures were unequal (the equity theory), but because some schools lacked the money to meet minimum standards of quality (the adequacy theory).”
In other words, the court battles were no longer just about gaps between wealthier and poorer school districts. The door was open for scrutinizing overall resources and whether states were meeting their obligations to provide public education.
What does that have to do with Kansas?
Going back as far as the 1970s, lawsuits have played a key role in shaping the way Kansas funds its schools.
Rose v. Council entered the conversation at least as early as 1991 in a school finance lawsuit called Mock v. Kansas. The case was resolved before reaching trial but spurred a 1992 overhaul of the state’s school funding system.
Rose reappeared in rulings from the early and mid-2000s as part of Montoy v. Kansas. Montoy is the high-profile case that preceded Gannon v. Kansas — the current legal battle — and led to a three-year plan approved by the court in 2006 for boosting annual school funding by more than $750 million.
Like the Gannon case, Montoy wasn’t just about the question of whether poorer school districts had resources akin to wealthier ones. It explored broader obligations.
With the advent of Gannon, Rose v. Council resurfaced. Three-and-a-half years into the Gannon case, which began in 2010, the Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling making clear that the question of whether the state is underfunding its public school system hinges on whether resources for schools are adequate to meet criteria identified in the Rose decision.
“More specifically,” the Kansas Supreme Court justices wrote in March 2014, “the adequacy requirement is met when the public education financing system provided by the legislature for grades K-12 — through structure and implementation — is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the standards set out in Rose.”
A few months later, the Legislature incorporated the Rose standards into statute, even though the court had noted that Kansas law already contained similar verbiage.
What are included in those Rose standards?
In the Rose ruling, the justices included a list of seven skill sets that schools should help children attain at a sufficient level:
- Oral and written communication skills to enable them to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization.
- Knowledge of economic, social and political systems to enable them to make informed choices.
- Understanding of governmental processes to enable them to understand the issues that affect their community, state and nation.
- Self-knowledge and knowledge of their own mental and physical wellness.
- Grounding in the arts to enable them to appreciate their cultural and historical heritage.
- Training or preparation for advanced training in academic or vocational fields, to enable them to choose and pursue life work intelligently.
- Academic or vocational skills to enable them to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.
The Kansas State Board of Education says these standards guide its work overseeing public schools. In recent years, schools and Kansas state education officials have increasingly turned their focus to helping students acquire life skills and prepare for academics and careers after high school.
Gannon is now in its seventh year, and as recently as March, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in the case that Kansas continues to fall short of the Rose concepts. Among other problems, the justices slammed the state for cutting the link between student enrollment and funding per school, a move that was part of a state strategy to freeze school budgets.
Kansas lawmakers voted in June to re-establish a funding formula that links dollars to factors like enrollment and phases in a two-year $293 million increase in state aid to schools.
A fresh round of oral arguments over whether this would satisfy the Rose standards took place in mid-July at the Kansas Supreme Court.
The state argued it would. The plaintiff school districts disagreed.
The parties are waiting for the justices to rule. If the plaintiffs win, it could require lawmakers to increase state aid by hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years.
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.