Kansas Funding Lawsuit Pits Legislature Against the Courts

Published December 8, 2010

A coalition representing 72 Kansas school districts and 32 students is suing the state over education budget cuts. Schools for Fair Funding alleges $303 million in cuts to education made by the Kansas legislature and governor during the fiscal crisis violates the state’s Constitution.

The suit seeks to force the legislature and governor to restore the funding in order to meet the requirements of Montoy vs. Kansas, a 2006 state Supreme Court decision.

“The results of the recession, particularly the effects beginning in the fall of 2008, have made it impossible to fulfill the full measure of what the court suggested was adequate funding,” explained Rep. Mike O’Neal (R-Hutchinson), speaker of the Kansas House.

“The recession has caused pressure on all budgets,” O’Neal said. “We have worked diligently to have the effects of the recession impact K-12 to a far lesser degree than other essential services, much to the chagrin of public safety and social services, I might add.”

“The schools should lose the suit, based on the data we currently have available regarding the adequacy of the funding the schools have received since 2005,” O’Neal said.

Legislative Goal Unmet

Although the legislature added nearly $1 billion to education funding over the past five years, outcomes have not improved significantly and the overall percentage of funds getting into classrooms hasn’t changed, O’Neal said. That’s despite a 2005 law establishing a “legislative goal” that 65 percent of new funds be spent on instruction.

“In fact, levels to the classroom have stayed around 55 percent, the pre-suit levels from 2005,” O’Neal said. “In addition, we have identified unencumbered funds [money not earmarked for mandatory programs] in the system of around $475 million.”

“There are statutory barriers to accessing those funds, and they are not evenly distributed, but there are adequate available funds system-wide,” O’Neal explained. “Montoy was the first case that recognized ‘adequacy’ as a constitutional requirement. Before, the analysis was about equity. The court has seen what happens when they interject adequacy into the mix. It affects all budgets, including theirs.”

Even with a sales tax increase passed last year, Kansas faces a shortfall of nearly $500 million, O’Neal says.

Calling for Reforms
As the 2011 legislative session gets underway, O’Neal suggests the legislature’s priority should be to identify efficiencies—something he says state school auditors were doing before Democrats and moderate Republicans eliminated their funding.

“This upcoming session the votes will be there for school reform,” he said.

“School choice, charter school reform, administrative reorganization, equitable distribution of unencumbered funds, and school efficiency audits are some of the remedies that would not only not cost money but would save money,” O’Neal said.

“Even with the funding cuts that will be necessary, we have provided and will provide schools the tools to achieve great outcomes if the education bureaucracy will only commit to getting available resources targeted to the classroom,” he added.

“Using taxpayer dollars to sue the state for more funds to continue repeating the mistakes and status quo of the past is wasteful and inefficient,” O’Neal explained.

‘Science Is Muddled’
John LaPlante, an education policy fellow at the Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank based in Wichita, says lawsuits such as Montoy are “a perfect example of overreach on the part of the knowledge class, including the judiciary and quasi-academic experts.” The legislature, not the courts, should be deciding what constitutes adequate funding, he said.

“Education finance consultants may run all the regression analyses they want, but the science of how much money is required to fund an ‘adequate’ or ‘suitable’ education is muddled,” LaPlante said.

LaPlante says more funding doesn’t necessarily improve student performance. Flexibility and fewer regulations may be more important, he says.

“As some charter schools in other states show, you can get student performance that is at least as good as in the status quo schools—and sometimes better—if you do things differently,” he said.

“Strip away some of the regulatory barnacles. Fund students rather than schools. Give parents incentives to be more involved by giving them more choice over the schools their kids attend,” LaPlante added.

“But sue your way to student excellence? It won’t work,” he concluded.

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas