Kansas Schools Sue State Over Education Funding

Published February 5, 2015

Kansas is the latest state to lose a funding battle between public schools and lawmakers. At least 10 other states, including Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas, recently faced lawsuits as well over what school districts in the respective states claim is unconstitutional underfunding.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reported a three-judge panel late last December ruled school funding in the state “is unconstitutionally low, but declined to order the state to inject a specific amount of money.” The newspaper reported several of the suggestions offered by the Shawnee County District Court judges in a ruling more than 100 pages long could cost state taxpayers between $548 million and $771 million a year.

“The lawsuit over school funding in Kansas has nothing to do with the amount that schools need to provide a good education; it is all about entitlement,” said Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a free-market think tank in Wichita. “Every school efficiency audit has determined that schools could provide services at better prices, but most of the recommendations have been ignored. School districts and their lawyers believe they are entitled to operate inefficiently if they choose. School district financial reports also show that over $400 million of state and local aid has been used to increase cash reserves,” he said.

Appeal Expected

The state is expected to appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court, which previously determined “[C]ost studies are more akin to estimates than the certainties the [lower court] suggested” and declared the first test of funding adequacy be whether students are meeting outcomes.

Known as Rose standards—named after a Kentucky court case—those outcomes have forced school districts “to admit that they do not know how to define or measure performance against the Rose standards, yet they claim to not have enough funding to meet the standards.” Trabert said.

“The district court ignored the Supreme Court instructions on how to measure adequacy in their recent order to increase funding by at least $548 million, so we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will again reject the lower court ruling on appeal,” Trabert added.

Ambiguous Laws

Jason C. Gay, a policy analyst and attorney licensed to practice in Texas and Wyoming, concurs with Trabert.

“The panel’s decision in Kansas highlights the danger of ambiguity in laws,” Gay said. “This is especially true when the ambiguity lies in the state constitution. Kansas requires the legislature to ‘make suitable provision for finance of the educational interest of the state.’ There is ambiguity as to what defines the educational interest of the state, and what suitable finance of those interests would be.

“The result is that the courts, not the voters, their elected representatives, or the governor determines the answers to these questions. People need to consider a court case that upset them—a result they disagree with—and ask themselves if they want the judge or judges in that case to determine what adequate funding of their child’s school looks like,” he added.

Gay says the trend of settling local school funding issues through litigation ultimately results in loss of local control over the schools.

“Ideally, schools are locally controlled, in order to give the people with the most at stake—the parents and community—the greatest amount of control possible,” he said. “As with everything else, control in education follows funding. As the funding moves to the state or federal government, control follows.

“Locally funded schools have no need to redress funding issues by suing the state in court. Funding issues give us an opportunity to examine how comfortable we are with centralized control and the potential problems that arise when we become more reliant on federal funding for our schools as the national debt continues to rise,” he added.

‘Accountable to the People’

Data indicate no correlation between school funding and quality of education. For example, New Jersey had the nation’s third-highest per-pupil spending as of June 2014 but was in the bottom half of states in high school graduation rate. Rhode Island comes in eighth in and is near the bottom third of states in graduation rate. No state spends less than Utah per pupil, yet only nine states have higher graduate rates.

“These important decisions about how to appropriate and spend scarce public resources are best made through a process that is both deliberative and directly accountable to the people,” said Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst at the Colorado-based Independence Institute. DeGrow notes Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled against a suit similar to Kansas’ in 2013 that would have forced the state to pay an extra $2 billion on K-12 education, which already receives approximately 40 percent of the state’s General Fund dollars.

Had the courts imposed such a mandate, it would have required a combination of cuts to other state budget items and asking voters to raise taxes, DeGrow said.

“Interestingly enough, we got a pretty clear answer to that later in 2013, when 65 percent of Colorado voters rejected a billion-dollar tax hike for schools,” said DeGrow. “Most voters remain unconvinced that new dollars would reach the classroom and directly benefit students, or that funds would be distributed fairly. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to resolve disputes and make needed policy changes through our elected legislators and school boards, not through the courts.”

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute.

Image by Andrew Magill.