The Kansas Legislature’s spring break is usually pretty quiet, but on Thursday of last week, the Kansas Supreme Court released their ruling on the final part of Gannon v. Kansas, the school funding lawsuit that was originally filed in 2010. The Court unanimously ruled that Kansas continues to Constitutionally underfund public education, and legislators must fix this by June 30 of this year.
That’s the short explanation. Here is the long one.
Kansas has been in litigation on the funding of school education for a long time now. In 2005, school districts won Montoy v. Kansas, which resulted in hundreds of millions of additional dollars for public education, maintained until the recession in 2008. Funding was cut then, as were a number of state services, but education funding levels were not restored once the economy began coming back. In 2010, school districts returned to court with Gannon v. Kansas, arguing that the state was once again underfunding public education.
The Courts split the lawsuit in two, ruling on “equity” and “adequacy” separately.
The equity concern was over whether every child in Kansas had the same opportunity to achieve. This case centered on the ability of some wealthy districts to raise more money in local taxes than poorer districts, and whether the state was compensating poor districts enough to ensure their students had a reasonable chance at success. The initial ruling found that funding was in fact not equitable, but appeals and a change by the state to block grant funding muddied the waters. Last year, the Court found that the state continued to fail the equity test, stating that the block grants resulted in “intolerable, and simply unfair, wealth-based disparities,” and threatened school closure if it was not remedied. Reluctantly, the Governor and his allies complied, putting more money into public education.
But that ruling was minor compared to the one returned earlier this month. On March 2, the Court ruled on the adequacy issue. Does Kansas put enough money into public education to ensure an adequate education? The answer was a unanimous, resounding no. They reiterated that Kansas underfunds public education, noted that since the previous lawsuit, Montoy, the state has reduced funding by $511 million, and stated conclusively that money does affect achievement, that teachers are the most important factor in student achievement, that early education is critical in achievement outcomes, and that a quarter of Kansas children are below standards in reading and math.
So how much money is needed?
This is an interesting question. The Court did not suggest an amount, instead using achievement standards to indicate that a quarter of Kansas school children are not able to read and write at the level they should. The Court left it up to the Legislature to determine how much money it would take to rectify this situation. Estimates range from $500 million to almost $1 billion, depending on who you ask.
And who you ask is important. The ruling is being interpreted very differently by all sides. In fact, everyone seems pleased with the ruling, a sure sign that politics is about to rear its head.
If you ask Governor Brownback, he will tell you that he agrees with the Court that some schools are failing their students, and he thinks school vouchers are the solution. Vouchers allow parents to take public funds and give them to private or parochial schools to enroll a formerly public school student. These schools are not subject to the same accreditation standards of public schools, do not have to provide special education services, and can reject students if they do not measure up to their academic standards. Opponents of voucher say giving parents an opportunity to take their money and leave their district contributes to underfunding public school systems, resulting in poor outcomes for students left behind.
If you ask the Governor’s allies in the Legislature, some will parrot the Governor’s voucher solution. Others have already begun to claim that the Court’s ruling only requires that they fund those failing students, and that money could be shifted from other schools (resulting in panicky head-bobbing in some wealthy districts). But this ignores some of the Court’s most compelling arguments in their decision. At one point, they note that since 2010, when Gannon was filed, the state has reduced funding of public education by $511 million! They also cited earlier findings that money makes a difference in student achievement. And they cited witnesses’ evidence that cutting teaching positions and freezing pay impacts teaching quality, which is the most important factor for student achievement.
Finally, if you ask education advocates in the Legislature, in educational organizations, and in schools, they will all tell you that chronic underfunding has been the problem for years, and that a fully funded system is what is needed, not a hackneyed, piecemeal band-aid. They note that the original school funding formula, derided by extremists conservatives as “unworkable,” was never fully funded, and as such, was never allowed to work. Critics complained that formulas are “too complicated,” yet provide only simplistic one-size fits all block grants as alternatives. School funding is a complex problem, and children across the state encounter many different hurdles to achievement, among them long bus rides, unfamiliarity with English, poor nutrition or poverty, learning disabilities, little access to early education, etc. A funding solution must be able to address all of those issues, to ensure an equitable opportunity for all Kansas kids. A complex problem requires a complete, compassionate, fully funded solution.
What will happen next?
In the next weeks, the Kansas Legislature will argue about money. They will argue about where to get it, when they were already three votes shy of overriding Brownback’s tax cuts have left, not only education, but infrastructure, health care, investments, our credit rating, and his own party in shambles. There will be votes to return taxes to modest levels, votes that Kansans have shown they support. There will be votes to take one-time funds and borrow money and perhaps delay repayments, all measures required by the depth of the Brownback Hole we find ourselves in. And there will be grandstanding by a select few who cry “all taxes are theft,” while voting for sales taxes impacting the lowest income Kansans.
But as time grows short, we predict that the majority of lawmakers, urged on by their constituents, will come around the table and will work out a solution that meets the Court’s criteria: that all Kansas students have the opportunity to succeed, no matter where they live, how they learn, or how much money they have.
MainStream is a coalition of informed citizens who believe that moderate voices need to be heard .