What did the Kansas court say about school funding?

To the editor:
What did the Kansas court say about school funding?
In 2005, Montoy v. Kansas was upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court. In January, eight years later, a three-judge panel decided a new lawsuit about state school funding, Gannon v. Kansas. Both lawsuits seek to enforce both Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, which requires the state legislature to "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."

The language of Article 6 was passed by the people of Kansas in 1966, 12 years after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. It was passed by the Legislature in response to court rulings that the original educational article did not provide authority for the state (the Legislature) to require consolidation of school districts. That's right, Article 6 was drafted by the Legislature to increase their authority over school districts as well as to establish clearly the duty of the state to properly fund the state school system. The people voted to allow the increased power of the state to streamline the system after being assured that the state would provide proper funding.

My father taught me that "with privilege comes responsibility" and our state constitution gives our lawmakers broad powers to regulate public schools, while it imposes a duty on the state to provide suitable funding. The passage of the amended Article 6 allowed the consolidation of Kansas school districts, decreasing from 1,600 to 306, and a more streamlined system, governed jointly by local elected school boards, an elected state board of education and a stronger role for the state in organizing, regulating and financing public schools.
Since 1965, when the Legislature created the first state level system of funding public schools, Kansas courts have been evaluating the constitutionality of Kansas state school funding. The funding formula has been adjusted after or during each round of lawsuits; because lawsuits have identified problems with the suitability of the funding scheme.

Now, for the second time in less than a decade, many legislators are defiantly attacking the judicial branch of our state government for finding the present state funding inadequate and inequitable. Some are even claiming that the court system does not have the right to evaluate the actions of the lawmakers for constitutionality.

Here is what the court ruled:

1. The Kansas State Legislature has the responsibility to provide funding for the public education system in the state. That means that funding comes from the state purse, not from cities, towns, counties, school districts, or other entities.

2. The courts have upheld the authority of the Legislature to define the level of property taxes levied by each school district. In 1992, for instance, the Legislature rewrote the formula and Leavenworth USD 453 taxpayers saw about 50 mills decrease in their property taxes. The Legislature has authority, and has long used it, to prescribe the budget authority that a school district can exercise. The taxes a school district levies is limited by the Legislature.

3. The courts have repeatedly recognized that some districts and some children will need more resources than others. The Legislature has allocated state funding differently from one district to another. The courts do require that the differences in state funding be based on actual differences in the cost of providing educational services. Tiny school districts in remote areas, for instance, cannot benefit from some economies available to larger districts and transportation costs more in rural areas. Districts with a concentration of at-risk students have higher costs; a fact confirmed by both the federal No Child Left Behind data and two studies conducted by the Kansas Legislature in the early 2000s. The courts have found that it is unconstitutional to deprive schools with more "expensive to educate" students of the funds necessary to provide instruction.

4. The Legislature has the power to determine the structure and organizational form that would enable the public schools to operate in the most efficient manner. The Legislature also has the power to define the "educational interests" of the state by, for instance, setting accreditation standards and academic performance measures.

5. The school funding scheme cannot allow difference in funding based upon the relative wealth of the school district patrons and it may not result in higher taxes for taxpayers in districts with lower property valuation per pupil. The Legislature may allow school districts to levy local property taxes for capital improvements or local option budgets or bond issues for new buildings, but state funding must be provided to equalize the tax burden in different districts, so that taxpayers in one district do not pay higher taxes for the same amount of educational spending.

6. The amount of funding provided by the Legislature does not create constitutionally suitable funding. The percentage of state general fund used to fund public education does not create constitutionality. Constitutional suitability is funding that pays the costs of the educational requirements defined in state law and doesn't place and unfair burden on taxpayers.
Legislators and their constituents want excellent public schools with all the best tools of instruction and highest quality educators. The courts just say put state money into the system or lower your educational expectations.