In the legislative session that just ended, advocates in Kansas notched some crucial wins, despite facing a legislative majority opposed to investing in the state’s public schools. Their uphill climb to success illustrates the power of sustaining multi-faceted campaigns for school funding reform that combine grassroots organizing, coalition building, communications and litigation to safeguard the education rights of public school students.
The backdrop for the legislative session is detailed in Education Law Center’s report, From Courthouse to Statehouse and Back Again, published in February. The report documents the three-decades long struggle to secure adequate and equitable funding for Kansas public schools, with several standoffs between the courts and an anti-tax, anti-government spending Legislature. While the lawyers were forced to repeatedly return to court to enforce mandates to provide sufficient funding, a strong, statewide advocacy campaign turned the tide in 2019, when lawmakers agreed to phase in significant increases in school funding through 2023.
In 2020, more conservative Republican legislators ascended to the majority, threatening compliance with the phase-in of new funding accepted by the State Supreme Court. The majority in the Legislature also put forth several proposals designed to undermine public education, including supplanting the promised state funding increase with one-time federal COVID relief, expanding an existing tax credit private school voucher program, and enacting an entirely new private school voucher program.
“The Legislature attempted to exploit the pandemic in order to advance bills that, if enacted, would cause lasting harm to our state’s most vulnerable public school students and communities,” said John Robb, a partner at Somers, Robb & Robb and one of the lead lawyers in the Kansas school finance litigation. “Thankfully, through our persistent advocacy, and with the threat of further court action, we were able to safeguard full funding for the coming year and stave off the worst of the Legislature’s anti-public education impulses. But rest assured: the fight continues!”
As in prior years, Schools for Fair Funding – the statewide campaign for school funding reform – kicked into high gear to protect the court-endorsed, hard fought commitment to boost school funding. After a tough battle, and with the support of Governor Laura Kelly and the prospect of another return to the State Supreme Court, the Legislature enacted the $93 million increase in state school aid for FY2022, and kept the State on track to reach the Court-required funding level.
Advocates also defeated a
proposal to enact a new, wide-ranging private school voucher program. Kansas
already has a tax credit voucher program for low-income students, and the
Legislature did expand the eligibility limits for those vouchers. However, Schools
for Fair Funding and their allies, including Game on for Kansas Schools,
succeeded in thwarting a new voucher program open to even more students –
including students, regardless of income level, who attended school remotely
during the pandemic. The defeated voucher bill would have enabled those
students to spend public money not only on private school tuition, but also on
a host of expenses, such as tutoring, online schools, textbooks,
transportation, and other fees.
The Kansas advocates exemplify the key lessons learned both from their previous efforts and those in the other three states with successful school funding reforms studied in From Courthouse to Statehouse and Back Again. The long-term protection of the constitutional right to an adequate education, free from discrimination, requires year-to-year political and legal advocacy aimed squarely at elected officials in the state capitol.
Policy and Outreach Director
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Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications