Kansas Supreme Court: State failed to correct unconstitutional school funding system

TOPEKA – The Kansas Supreme Court today issued its decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas, a dispute over K-12 public education financing. The high court affirmed the ruling of a three-judge district court panel that the state had failed to correct unconstitutional inequities in Kansas’ school funding system. The court stayed the issuance of its mandate until June 30, 2016, effectively extending the time for the state to correct the inequities. The court also dismissed from the suit State Treasurer Ron Estes and former Secretary of Administration Jim Clark, and denied the plaintiffs’ request for attorney fees.

The plaintiffs are four school districts that sued the state in November 2010. Each district lost funding beginning in fiscal year 2009 after the Legislature eliminated capital outlay state aid and reduced appropriations for base state aid per pupil and supplemental general state aid. The school districts claimed these actions violated the education article of the people’s Constitution – Article 6 – which requires the Legislature to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

In a decision issued March 7, 2014, the Supreme Court clarified that Article 6 contains both adequacy and equity components. In other words, the Legislature must provide enough funds to ensure public school students receive a constitutionally adequate education and must distribute those funds in a way that does not result in unreasonable wealth-based disparities among districts. Today’s decision addresses only the school districts’ equity claims; their adequacy claims are currently on hold.

In its March 2014 decision, the Supreme Court concluded the Legislature created unconstitutional funding disparities among districts when it withheld capital outlay state aid payments and reduced supplemental general state aid payments owed to certain districts in fiscal years 2010, 2011, and 2012. The court returned the case to Shawnee County District Court and ordered the three-judge panel to review any legislative response for compliance with the people’s Constitution.

During its 2015 session, the Legislature amended the school funding system for fiscal year 2015 by revising the formulas for capital outlay state aid and supplemental general state aid. These changes resulted in a loss of about $54 million to lower-property wealth districts receiving the aid, while wealthier districts without need of the aid lost no funding. For fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the Legislature repealed the existing system and enacted a block grant funding system that essentially froze school funding at 2015 levels.

The district court panel determined this 2015 legislation did not cure the unconstitutional inequities, and the Supreme Court affirmed that ruling today. The court determined that the legislative reductions actually increased wealth-based disparities among districts because they widened the gap between those districts receiving the aid and those without a need for it.

The court retained jurisdiction to review any legislation enacted in response to its ruling.

Information from the Kansas Supreme Court Office of Judicial Administration.

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