By: David Sciarra
The Kansas Supreme Court once again stood firmly on established precedent when, on March 2, the Justices declared Kansas school funding inadequate to support the actual cost of educating students to meet the state’s academic standards.
The ruling in Gannon v. State addresses head-on Governor Sam Brownback’s drastic reductions in public school funding, pushed through to pay for his massive tax cuts.
The Supreme Court has given the Legislature to June 30 to remedy the constitutional violation.
The latest Gannon ruling flows from the Kansas Legislature’s waffling on restoring Governor Brownback’s formula aid cuts. In 2014, the Legislature took steps to increase school aid, but reversed itself a year later.
The Gannon student and district plaintiffs, represented by Wichita attorney Alan Rupe and Newton attorney John Robb, turned again to the Supreme Court for relief. The Court bifurcated the issues in the case into equity and adequacy and sent the case to a lower court to develop an evidentiary record.
In February 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that the funding system was inequitable and ordered a remedy by June 30, 2016. The Legislature complied by the deadline.
In its March 2017 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s finding that Governor Brownback’s school aid cuts rendered the finance system constitutionally inadequate. The Court concluded that “every witness, including experts…confirmed that the costs of educating Kansas students and the demands on Kansas education had only increased since 2007….creating a gap between demands and resources in Kansas public education.”
The Court relied on exhaustive evidence of severe deficits in essential resources in Kansas schools, including full-day kindergarten, extracurricular activities, and professional development. The resource deficits also included librarians, speech therapists, coaches, nurses, counselors and other staff, along with foreign language and art and music programs.
The Court also affirmed evidence of poor student outcomes, citing the unacceptable performance on state assessments of Kansas students overall, and students of color and low-income students in particular. The Court noted that, when the number of underperforming African American and Latino students is combined, the total equals all of the students ”in every school district in every county with an eastern boundary beginning west of Salina—more than one-half of the state’s geographic area.”
The Court also affirmed the lower court’s finding of a correlation between inadequate state funding and the decline in student achievement. The Court cited the “substantial evidence” that when funding increased after a previous school funding decision, student achievement also increased, and when funding was cut, student achievement also fell.
The Court concluded “the impact of the loss of funding” under the Brownback Administration was “endemic, systemic, and statewide.”
The Gannon ruling follows the path taken by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Abbott v. Burke in 2011, when, based on a trial record of reductions in essential resources, the Court invalidated Governor Chris Christie’s $1.1 billion cut in formula aid and ordered the aid restored to urban districts.
But Gannon also stands in stark contrast to recent decisions by the Texas and Colorado Supreme Courts. Those Courts overturned trial court rulings of inadequate and unconstitutional school funding, ignoring both the overwhelming weight of the trial evidence and their own prior court precedents.
Unlike the Texas and Colorado Supreme Courts, the Kansas high court has stood steadfast in applying its precedent to vindicate the constitutional rights of the state’s school children to the resources needed to achieve Kansas’s academic standards. The Kansas Supreme Court, in the face of deep recalcitrance by the Executive and Legislature, has demonstrated the institutional integrity that is the hallmark of an independent judiciary. And, by doing so, the Kansas Court has once again proved to be a true champion of equity.
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