In the case Gannon v. State of Kansas (Gannon IV), the Kansas Supreme Court once again considered the constitutionality of the state’s school funding. In its March 2, 2017, opinion, the court concluded that “the state's public education financing system provided by the legislature for grades K-12, through its structure and implementation, is not reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the standards” set out in previous case law, and now codified in Kansas statute.
The litigation began in March 2014, when the plaintiffs, a group of students and their guardians, and the school districts of Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City, and Kansas City, filed their lawsuit against the Sunflower State. The crux of their suit was to challenge the legality of the formula and mechanism by which public schools receive their funding.
The case has been back and forth between the lower court and state Supreme Court, as we discussed a year ago, after the Court issued its opinion in Gannon II on February 11, 2016. Then, the Court declared that the state had not shown that it had cured the constitutional infirmities related to the equitable funding of public education at issue. More specifically, the Gannon II court found that while it had clarified the applicable standards for the parties in Gannon I, the state had not complied with its mandate to fix the inequities that came about when lawmakers eliminated capital outlay state aid payments, and prorated supplemental general state aid payments, beginning in fiscal year 2010, to which the school districts were statutorily entitled.
A few months later, the Court issued an opinion in Gannon III, holding that, among other things, the legislature’s action to cure the constitutional failings identified in Gannon II, in the form of H.B. 2655, did not actually do so with respect to the local option budget funding mechanism. This also rendered certain 2015 legislation, Classroom Learning Assuring Student Success Act (CLASS), unconstitutional.
In the latest opinion, Gannon IV, delivered on March 3, 2017, the Court pointed out that this is the fourth school financing decision involving these parties and the constitutional provision requiring lawmakers to "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."
Gannon IV stems from the most recent appeal by the state arguing that on remand from Gannon III, the three judge panel appointed to hear the case had erred in numerous ways when it concluded that CLASS, the K-12 financing system, is constitutionally inadequate.
The Court disagreed with the state, affirming the panel’s determination that the school financing system is constitutionally inadequate because it does not meet the requirements set forth in Gannon I: “In effect, it is merely a fund created by freezing school districts' funding for 2 school years at a prior year's level. It also is only minimally responsive to financially important changing conditions such as increased enrollment.” In addition, the Court asserted that the updated standardized testing results show that “not only is the State failing to provide approximately one-fourth of all its public school K-12 students with the basic skills of both reading and math, but that it is also leaving behind significant groups of harder-to-educate students.”
The Court cited three statistics to support its conclusions:
- Approximately 15,000 of our state's African American students, or nearly one-half of their total student population, are not proficient in reading and math—subjects at the heart of an adequate education.
- Approximately 33,000 Hispanic students, or more than one-third of their student population, are not proficient in reading and math. When combined with the 15,000 underperforming African American students, the sum equates to approximately all the K-12 public school 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.
- More than one-third of our state's students who receive free and reduced lunches are not proficient in reading and math.
Connecting unacceptable student performance to inadequate funding, the Court announced that the plaintiffs had proven this link by substantial competent evidence. “Accordingly, we conclude the state's public education financing system, through its structure and implementation, is not reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the minimum constitutional standards of adequacy.”
As for the remedy, the Court declared that its practice has been, and continues to be, to give the state the opportunity to bring the state's education financing system into compliance with its constitution. Thus,
Once a new financing system is enacted, the State will have to satisfactorily demonstrate to this court by June 30, 2017, that its proposed remedy is reasonably calculated to address the constitutional violations identified, as well as comports with previously identified constitutional mandates such as equity. For those purposes, the State will bear the burden of establishing such compliance and explaining its rationales for the choices made to achieve it.
The Court underscored the fact that there is no “litmus test that relies on specific funding levels to reach constitutional compliance,” and that “"total spending is not the touchstone of adequacy.” Instead, lawmakers should focus on creating a system that “is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the standards” previously set forth.
Finally, the Court emphasized that the test for adequacy that it established at the first appeal, Gannon I, reflects minimal standards, and that once they are satisfied, “the court's role ends. Whether the legislature chooses to exceed these minimal standards is up to that deliberative body and ultimately the people of Kansas who elect those legislators.”
This decision will most certainly put pressure on lawmakers as they struggle to address their budget problems.