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January 9, 2013

Plaintiff parents and school districts expect a trial court ruling soon in a case that claims the state's major cuts to K-12 schools violate the constitutional rights of Kansas students. In the face of such a decision, a newly elected legislature, convening next week, may try to take action to get the courts out of their historic role of ensuring the state fulfills its constitutional duties. 

Over the years, Kansas courts have upheld the state's responsibility to "provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools, educational institutions and related activities," as required by the Kansas Constitution. Furthermore, the legislature must "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state," under the constitution.

Kansas has a history of local support for quality public education and pride in local schools. At the state level, after the Kansas Supreme Court, in Montoy v. State (2005), declared the state's education funding system failed to comply with the constitution because it was inequitable and inadequate, the legislature enacted a new, constitutional funding system in 2006---albeit after some initial resistance.

At that time, the legislature tried to pass a constitutional amendment to take the courts out of the educational opportunity issues, but that proposed measure failed. Nonetheless, the legislature did pass a law requiring any future school funding cases to be heard by a three-judge panel, instead of one trial judge.

The State began phasing in the post-Montoy funding formula, successfully, over the next couple of years. Previously under-funded school districts found they were better able to provide for their students, and achievement began to rise.

However, because of major funding cuts in 2009 and 2010, this progress ended, and plaintiffs filed Gannon v. State. In November 2010, with support from districts educating over 40% of Kansas students, plaintiffs allege that the state's cuts render its funding system unconstitutional, again, because (1) it is below the cost of providing the constitutionally required "suitable" education to Kansas children and (2) the cuts are inequitably distributed among school districts.

The trial in Gannon ended in August 2012, and the parties await the ruling. Plaintiffs are asking the court to require the state to provide sufficient funding to allow the current school finance law---found constitutional in Montoyin 2006---to work. "The current formula simply needs to be funded," said John Robb, co-lead counsel for plaintiffs. "No formula will work if it is not adequately funded."

Meanwhile, last year the Kansas legislature, at the urging of Governor Brownback, did away with state income taxes on most businesses and, thereby, created huge holes in future Kansas budgets. It appears that those holes cannot be closed without more, major cuts to public education.

On January 14, 2013, the new legislature will convene for an annual 90-day session. While news about the presidential election filled the airwaves, crucial state elections received little attention. In November 2012, voters in Kansas chose new anti-public education legislative majorities in both the Senate and House.

The Kansas media are reporting that the newly elected legislators will try to break unions, do away with merit selection of judges, and reduce state funding to school districts, especially those educating more students learning English, those with disabilities, and other "at-risk" children, who are more costly to educate.

Importantly, the proposed constitutional amendment to prevent court enforcement of students' constitutional rights---which has failed every year since the Montoy case---will likely be re-introduced. The outcome is uncertain.

While advocates for educational opportunity in Kansas continue to call on the state to honor its responsibilities under the state constitution, the next court ruling and the legislative response bear watching.

At this point, grassroots parent and community advocacy seems to be critically needed, to turn the tide back in favor of quality public education for all children.

So-called education "reformers" are trying to create this anti-education political status in states across the nation. What is the political status for public education in your state legislature?

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Litigation Update
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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