Kansas Court Holds School Funding Cuts Unconstitutional

in NEWS FROM THE ACCESS NETWORK

In a strongly-worded 250-page decision, a three-judge district court panel in Kansas held that the extensive series of reductions in state aid that the legislature had adopted since the Great Recession are unconstitutional. Gannon v. State. In a much anticipated decision released on January 11, 2013, the court held that the state had violated prior orders of the state supreme court in Montoy v. State, and enjoined the state from reducing state aid below amounts that had been established by statutes adopted to comply with the state supreme court’s orders in that case.

Filed in 2010 by a coalition of school districts representing approximately 40 percent of children in the state, Gannon v. Kansas is the latest case in a history of lawsuits that have challenged Kansas’ school funding system. In response to the court’s ruling in Montoy, which established a funding floor for per pupil aid, the legislature increased education funds in 2006, only to subsequently cut them again two years later. From 2009 to 2012, the state has reduced the base amount by over $511 million and although lawmakers restored $40 million to education funds last year, the current per-pupil foundation funding base of $3,838 (before weightings) is still far below what the court stated is required to provide a basic education. The court also indicated that when taking into account inflation and higher costs associated with implementation of new common core standards, the gap between current appropriations and actual needs could be well over $1 billion.

The panel’s unanimous decision stressed that “a constitution is inviolate to negotiation, preference, or choice,” and that economic conditions cannot undermine a constitutional guarantee to an adequate education. Finding no evidence that undermined the extensive costing-out studies upon which earlier court decisions were based, the judges compared the calculations with the recent budget allocations and concluded that “the Legislature could not have possibly considered the actual costs of providing…a suitable education in making its appropriations.”

The court also held that in the absence of any new cost study or actual factual analysis to justify the reductions, the state had not met its burden of proof to establish that constitutionally adequate services could be provided to students at the lower funding levels. It found that the state had not even attempted to develop any efficiency standards, eliminated regulatory mandates or taken any alternative actions that might reduce costs without detrimentally impacting services to students. It held that the students were entitled to immediate relief because “school opportunities do not repeat themselves,” and it chastised the state for “experimenting with our children [who] have no recourse from a failure of the experiment.”

The Kansas decision is the sixth in a series of state court decisions since 2008 that have held that students’ constitutional rights to adequate educational services cannot be set aside because of budget constraints. (No court has upheld any education budget cuts during this time period.) See Michael A. Rebell, Safeguarding the Right to a Sound Basic Education in Times of Fiscal Constraints, 75 Alb L. Rev.1855, 1876-1855 (2012).

The Kansas order enjoins the state from “enacting any appropriation, or directing, modifying or canceling any transfer, or using any accounting mechanism or other practice that would will, or may in due course, affect, effect or fund less than the base student aid per pupil of $4,492.” The state has filed a notice of its appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court; this means that the district court’s order will be stayed pending a final decision by the supreme court. Meanwhile, Governor Sam Brownback along with state lawmakers will be faced this legislative term with the challenge of fulfilling the court’s order to restore funding cuts.

January 17, 2013

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