On June 1, 2015, in a lawsuit where plaintiffs from wealthy Kansas school districts tried to use the U.S. Constitution to wall themselves off from the rest of Kansas, the federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver dismissed all but one claim and remanded the case to the Kansas District Court.
In their complaint, plaintiffs from the wealthy Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) used an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink list of charges against the State of Kansas. Plaintiffs “claim that aspects of the state’s school financing regime violate their rights to free speech, to petition the government, to association, to vote, to education, to equal protection of the laws, to direct the upbringing of their children, and to dispose of their property,” the Court stated. “Stripped to its pith, plaintiffs’ position is that the U.S. Constitution requires the state of Kansas to grant its political subdivisions unlimited taxing and budget authority.” The Court concluded that it could “discern no support for their novel and expansive claims.”
“Instead of fighting for inequities and more privilege,” said David Sciarra of the Education Law Center, “these parents should be working with Kansas families throughout the state to ensure ‘suitable provision’ for the education of all Kansas children, as the Kansas Constitution requires.”
John Robb, counsel to Schools For Fair Funding, said that “If [the plaintiffs are] successful, local property taxes will at least double over the next 10 years or educational opportunity will experience an explosively widening gap.”
The SMSD plaintiffs argued that the Local Option Budget cap (LOB cap) in the Kansas school funding system was an attempt to punish them because they are part of a politically unpopular group of wealthy people, citing cases brought by gay plaintiffs. The court wrote that “it strains credulity to assert that residents of wealthy communities are subject to the systematic ostracization faced by gay people.”
Parents from less wealthy communities intervened as defendants in this case, including the Gannon family, who are first-named plaintiffs in Gannon v. State, a lawsuit seeking both fair and adequate school funding for all K-12 Kansas students.
The Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling affirmed the federal Kansas District Court’s orders denying plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction and granting defendants’ motions to dismiss all but one claim. Plaintiffs’ lone remaining claim for a trial in the District Court is the assertion that the LOB cap cannot survive a rational basis review under the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
Under such review a challenged provision, in this case the LOB cap, must be upheld “if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis” for it, the Court explained. The Tenth Circuit quotes the District Court’s 2013 ruling with approval: “the pursuit of a claim under the Equal Protection Clause based on the argument that equity is not a legitimate governmental interest seems inherently unsupportable.”
Throughout most of its history, the Kansas legislature has established minimum local school tax levies, known as floors, and maximum local school tax levies, known as caps. And, the Tenth Circuit explained in its ruling, “Kansas has developed a school financing scheme that seeks to avoid ‘mak[ing] the quality of a child’s education a function of his or her parent’s or neighbors’ wealth.’ Montoy v. State (2006). Just last year, the Kansas Supreme Court reaffirmed that ‘[e]ducation in Kansas is not restricted to that upper stratum of society able to afford it.’ Gannon v. State, (2014).” (citations omitted)
Dissatisfied with this equity in the Kansas school funding system, a group of parents from the wealthy SMSD filed suit in 2010 in the federal District Court of Kansas. They asked the court to void the LOB cap and order the state education finance system shifted to local property taxes.
After a decision on standing in 2011 and a trip to the Tenth Circuit in 2012, the District Court, in 2013, entered an order deciding certain preliminary matters and dismissing most of the claims made by the Shawnee Mission plaintiffs. The order also set the standard by which the case will be judged at trial as the rational basis standard rather than the strict scrutiny standard. The plaintiffs then appealed that order to the Tenth Circuit in Denver, which resulted in this decision affirming the District Court’s order.
Education Justice Director
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications