In a lengthy decision that emphasized that “equity in education” is “obviously a legitimate governmental interest,” the United State Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit earlier this week upheld the District Court’s denial of a preliminary injunction against the state’s cap on the amount of property tax revenues that a local school district can raise. The case, Patrella v. Brownback, was brought by residents of the Shawnee Mission Unified School District, a district with the highest property values in the state, who claimed that the state’s limiting their ability to raise local taxes has forced them to lay off staff and reduce services since the 2008 recession, especially since under the state’s equity based school funding formulas, they receive relatively little state aid.
The Court strongly rejected their claims. It summarized the case and its decision as follows:
[Plaintiffs] seek federal intervention to upend decades of effort toward establishing an equitable school finance system in Kansas. Adopting a kitchen-sink approach, they claim that aspects of the state’s school financing regime violate their rights to free speech, to petition the government, to associate, to vote, to education, to equal protection of the laws, to direct the upbringing of their children, and to dispose of their property. 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. We discern no support for their novel and expansive claims.
Among the novel and expansive claims put forward by plaintiffs attorneys that the Court rejected was the assertion that residents of a wealthy school district are part of a”politically unpopular group” whose claims are therefore entitled to heightened scrutiny under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Court remanded the case for trial under the lesser rational relationship standard. At the same time, the court also indicated that the plaintiffs were not likely to succeed even under that lesser standard. Among the many reasons the Court cited for why the plaintiffs arguments were not likely to prevail was that the plaintiffs, narrowly focusing on the interests of their district alone,
fail to recognize that districts compete with one another for educational resources, like high-quality teachers. By limiting the ability of individual districts to outspend their neighbors, Kansas rationally promotes an equitable distribution of resources throughout the state and seeks to prevent an inter-district arms race from raising the cost of education statewide. Further, by limiting local authority, Kansas channels the efforts of those seeking increased education spending for their own children towards the state level, where such efforts can benefit a broader class of students.
The Court did state, however, that wealthy individuals and foundations are free to donate money to the public schools and that nothing precluded wealthy districts from raising sales and other taxes.