Law & Courts

Kansas Funding Feud Could Spark Court, Legislative Clash

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 10, 2013 4 min read
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A long-running feud over K-12 spending levels in Kansas threatens to reach new levels of enmity, as lawmakers worry they could end up at odds with the state’s highest court on the amount of state money public schools are entitled to receive.

The Kansas Supreme Court is currently considering a lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, brought by school districts claiming that the state has not met its constitutional obligation to make “suitable provision” of resources to K-12. But even if the districts prevail, their path forward in the face of a state legislature that has expressed open hostility to such a ruling is uncertain.

The case highlights a landscape of legal fights over education funding around the nation that include a convoluted court battle over 2011 cuts in Texas and the Washington state legislature’s ongoing struggle to meet the demands of a 2012 ruling by that state’s supreme court.

The case currently awaiting a decision in Kansas was filed in 2010. The 63 plaintiff districts (out of 286 districts in Kansas) argue that the state is failing to abide by the settlement of a prior school funding lawsuit, Montoy v. Kansas. As part of the 2006 settlement of Montoy, the legislature agreed to phase in an additional $466 million in school funding over three years.

But the districts now argue that the state has “denied school districts the funds promised by the Montoy decision” because of budget reductions that began in fiscal 2009. The state also cut income taxes significantly earlier this year. In fiscal 2014, Kansas is providing $1.9 billion in general state aid to public schools (none of it from Montoy settlement funds).

The districts also say the costs of educating students has grown beyond what the Montoy settlement called for.

Big Potential Bill

If the plaintiffs receive the funding they seek from the court under the Montoy settlement, the state would in fact have to increase its K-12 spending by roughly $650 million annually, boosting per-pupil spending to $4,500 from about $3,800. (On the Education Week Research Center’s Quality Counts 2013 survey of states, Kansas received a D grade for state spending levels.)

However, it is unclear to what extent the justices, even if they rule that the state must spend more on public schools, will prescribe the exact amount of additional funding.

Several options remain open to the court, in theory, such as allowing the state to commission a new K-12 funding study to determine appropriate new spending increases, said Mark Tallman, the associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards.

In oral arguments in the Gannon case that took place in October, at least one state supreme court justices appeared sympathetic to the districts’ case—Justice Eric Rosen said of the Montoy settlement: “It stands before me, in my eyes, as a broken promise.”

But in a legal brief defending the state, Kansas Solicitor General Stephen R. McAllister argued that the districts were not truly concerned about the state constitution: “This case is about money and, most importantly, it is about who decides how much funding is ‘suitable’ for Kansas schools.”

Some frustrated legislators have also indicated through statements to the press that they believe the court would be overstepping its bounds in dictating to lawmakers precise spending amounts for public schools. Last year, lawmakers also weighed a bill that would have prohibited the court from trumping their legal prerogative with respect to K-12 aid.

“What it boils down to is, it is the legislature’s [position] to be able to determine the actual amount,” said state Sen. Steve Abrams, a Republican and the chairman of the Senate education committee. “If [the justices] would come back and say some discrete amount, that might cause some issues.”

Waiting Game

Officials say it is unclear if the court will rule before the state legislature reconvenes on Jan. 12. Mr. Tallman indicated there is a general sentiment in the state that the court will likely rule in favor of the plaintiffs, but Mr. Abrams disagreed, saying there is no consensus as to the court’s probable decision.

Asked about recent inquiries from state lawmakers about how to deal with any court-ordered funding increase, Dale Dennis, a deputy commissioner of the Kansas education department, said, “The only questions we have are, how much would it cost and what would it cost if we phased it in over a three-year period.”

Mr. Dennis added that the department has no position on the suit.

Last month, Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, hosted a meeting that included education officials to discuss the situation and seek common ground, the Lawrence Journal-World reported, but no clear solution emerged.

Complicating the matter is that 2014 is a major election year in Kansas. Gov. Brownback and members of the House of Representatives are up for election and could be reluctant to reverse recent tax cuts to pay for any new court-imposed K-12 spending requirements. And voters will be able to determine whether to “retain” two supreme court justices, who initially are appointed by the governor.

And if legislators ultimately are required to significantly increase K-12 funding, Mr. Tallman pointed out, they could be inclined to pair higher state aid with increasing charter school options and other education governance changes.

“I don’t think anyone thinks the controversy would be limited to just the amount of school funding,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Kansas Funding Feud Raises Prospect of Court, Legislative Clash

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