State Court: Kansas Lawmakers Made ‘Unreasonable Disparities’ in School Funding

Published March 10, 2014

In a long-awaited decision, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled state lawmakers created “unconstitutional” and “unreasonable wealth-based disparities” by withholding certain state aid payments to public schools.

Although the legal battle leading up to the decision in Luke Gannon et al. v. State of Kansas has been a four-year slog since the lawsuit’s initial filing in 2010, much of the March ruling boiled down to the court’s interpretation of what is considered equitable and adequate education funding.

Although the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court decision regarding the state’s failure to equitably disburse capital outlay and supplemental general payments to Sunflower State schools, it stopped short of issuing a decree for specific funding to meet the Legislature’s constitutional requirement to provide an “adequate” education.

“Under the facts of this case, the district court panel did not apply the correct test to determine whether the State met its duty to provide adequacy in K-12 public education as required under Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,” the court decision stated, explaining any decision about total funding levels would be bounced back to Shawnee County District Court for further consideration.

The justices stated in the opinion that addressing concerns relating to equal state aid payments also could affect its assessment of overall education funding.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a pro-market think tank, said the partial reversal of the lower court’s decision was huge.

‘A Tremendous Victory’

“That’s a tremendous victory, to say that ‘you can’t just say total spending is the measure,'” Trabert told Kansas Watchdog.

The Legislature was given an ultimatum to fix unequal capital outlay and supplemental general state aid payments by no later than July 1, or face court intervention. Following the ruling, plaintiffs told the Topeka Capital-Journal the state would need to appropriate $80 million to $150 million to comply with the judicial decision.

No Way to Force Compliance

“With no police force and no ability to sanction or punish lawmakers, the court would have no way to make the legislature comply,” said Chapman Rackaway, political science professor at Fort Hays State University. “If the legislature wants to ignore the court’s decision, they are perfectly within their rights to do it. It would only be with a massive revolt by voters ousting lawmakers who participated in ignoring the decision that there would be any consequences to defying the court.”

Supreme Court justices, though, made one thing abundantly clear: They are not about to back down from this fight.

“Just as only the people of Kansas have the authority to change the standards in their constitution, the Supreme Court of Kansas has the final authority to determine adherence to the standards of the people’s constitution,” the ruling stated.

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