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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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