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November 4, 2013

On October 29, 2013, U.S. District Court Judge John Lungstrum ruled on several motions in the anti-equity, school funding case, Petrella v. Brownback. The case will proceed, under a "rational basis" level of judicial review, on the plaintiffs' claim that the Kansas school funding law's local tax cap violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

For non-attorneys, "rational basis" reviews generally find challenged laws do not violate the Equal Protection Clause. A "strict scrutiny" level of review, which plaintiffs argued for in Petrella, generally leads to a declaration that the law is unconstitutional because it does violate equal protection. Courts examine "fundamental rights" under "strict scrutiny."

The Petrella plaintiffs are parents from the well-to-do Shawnee Mission School District, outside of Kansas City, Kansas. They argued that the state cap on local property taxes violated the following three new "fundamental rights" that they asserted:

(1) the right of parents to direct and participate in the upbringing and education of their children; (2) the right of parents and others in the school district to spend their own money on improved public education; and (3) the right under the First Amendment to assemble, associate, and petition for the advancement of the educational interests of their children through a popular vote on increased local taxes.

The court noted that plaintiffs had provided no authority declaring any of these interests to be a "fundamental right" and concluded that it would "not declare a new fundamental right" in the absence of any authority.

The court cited the well-known 1973 San Antonio v. Rodriguez decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court concluded, "there is no fundamental right to public education under the United States Constitution," and further explained the importance of the Rodriguez ruling to the issues in Petrella:

In Rodriguez, ... [plaintiffs'] attack was on the way in which Texas raised and disbursed state and local tax revenues, which meant that the Court was being asked to intrude in an area in which the Court has traditionally deferred to state legislatures. The Court noted that it had "often admonished against such interferences with the State's fiscal policies under the Equal Protection Clause." The Court further stated: "In such a complex arena in which no perfect alternatives exist, the Court does well not to impose too rigorous a standard of scrutiny lest all local fiscal schemes become subjects of criticism under the Equal Protection Clause." (internal citations omitted)

Furthermore, the court held that "An examination of each of the [three] interests asserted by plaintiffs also supports rejection of the strict scrutiny standard in favor of the rational basis test."

Equity, that is fair school funding and fair educational opportunities throughout Kansas, was the governmental interest intended to be served by the local tax cap. But, the court pointed out, "Plaintiffs argue that equity---the attempt here to limit the amounts that richer school districts can raise from the [local option budget], and thus limit the resulting disparity among districts that could occur without a cap---is not a legitimate governmental interest."

Plaintiffs also argue that "one may not seek to achieve equity ... by discriminating against a class such as wealthier school districts" without violating the Equal Protection Clause. However, the court explains that the Equal Protection Clause only forbids discrimination or unequal treatment that does not pass the "rational basis" test.

As reported by Heather Hollingsworth of the Associated Press, plaintiffs' attorney said she thought the plaintiffs would prevail, while the Kansas Attorney General said "that the 'federal district court declined the plaintiffs' invitation to create new fundamental rights' and called the ruling encouraging."

Related Stories:
Litigation Update: Connecticut Plaintiff Victory, New Cases Filed. See New Anti-Equity Strategy in Indiana.
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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