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  November 20, 2015
 
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KANSAS COURTS AGAIN TACKLE SCHOOL FUNDING EQUITY UNDER STATE CONSTITUTION

WICHITA -- On November 6, 2015, the Kansas Supreme Court heard oral argument on the equity issues in the Gannon v. State "suitable" education case. Meanwhile, State revenues continue to fall due to tax cuts.

Gannon challenges state funding cuts -- adequacy -- and changes in how the state distributes funding among districts -- equity. As the Kansas Constitution requires both adequate and equitable educational opportunities, the Court bifurcated this case into its adequacy and equity components. And, a three-judge District Court panel heard testimony and issued rulings, separately, on these two issues.

On equity, the panel unanimously found that plaintiffs proved the current block-grant school funding system violates the constitutional mandate. Funding is unfair because it shortchanges both school districts with limited capacity to raise funds locally and students with needs that cost more to address.

The State appealed the District Court's ruling, and the parties submitted briefs to the high court. At oral argument, the Court indicated that it understood the specific examples that plaintiffs presented to the panel, showing that major losses in funding had resulted in the loss of essential educational resources, such as programs and staff in reading and math and programs for students in poverty, with disabilities, or learning English.

The Supreme Court also questioned the State's outside counsel arguing for the Attorney General and the Legislature's Counsel. Members of the Court offered counsel opportunities to explain how the current funding system meets the equity requirements of the constitution. Moreover, the Court asked the State's counsel to point to any evidence in the Record that would support their position that the Legislature's changes to the funding system do not violate equity. It appeared that they were unable to do so, that is, this evidence had not been presented to the District Court panel.

Generally, state courts are reluctant, in the first instance, to order specific remedies in educational opportunity and school funding cases. They prefer, instead, to allow the other branches of government to choose among several options in resolving constitutional violations in school funding.

However, in Gannon, Legislative Counsel seemed to ask for specific guidance from the Court. Following up counsel comments to this effect, the Court asked, "is it your recommendation that we put some sort of specific guidance on that, i.e. a particular number, or particular range, is that what you're saying?" Legislative Counsel: "I think that would be helpful, or we may just be back here again, arguing about whatever response comes was substantial compliance or not."

Revenues Continue to Fall

On the same day as oral argument, the Kansas Consensus Revenue Estimating Group released its periodic report showing the state budget continues to tank. There is an overall decrease in revenue expected for fiscal years 2015-16 and 2016-17 of $353.6 million. That leaves the current 2015-16 budget about $118 million in the red. Any additional state resources needed to comply with the education provisions of the constitution would increase the challenges the Governor and Legislature have created for themselves by enacting major tax cuts for well-to-do Kansans.

The parties expect an equity ruling from the Court by the end of the year, only weeks away.

The Kansas courts have also been addressing the constitution's adequacy requirement in Gannon. The District Court panel found the current system violates adequacy, and the State appealed. Briefing to the Kansas Supreme Court is underway and due to be completed on January 27, 2016. Oral argument on adequacy is anticipated in the spring.

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Education Law Center Press Contact:

Molly A. Hunter

Education Justice, Director

mhunter@edlawcenter.org

973-624-1815, x 19

 
     
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