On October 18, a Kansas Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s dismissal of Petrella v. State, a lawsuit that challenges the state’s cap on the amount local residents can tax themselves to support school funding. The case is remanded to the federal district court for a trial on the merits and its outcome could have a significant impact on school equity in the state.
Filed in 2010 by ten parents in Shawnee Mission Unified School District, the suit claims the local option budget cap violates federal Due Process and Equal Protection rights. The Shawnee parents contend that they are both restricted in deciding how much money to raise and also disproportionately hurt by the cap because they receive such a low level of per-pupil funding from the state. In 2011, the trial court concluded that the plaintiffs had no standing because a decision in their favor would force the court to deem the entire education funding system unconstitutional, leaving the district with no authority to raise any education funds. In reversing the decision, the appeals court rejected this logic and concluded that the plaintiffs would benefit from a favorable decision.
Advocates concerned with school equity worry that allowing districts to raise unlimited amounts of funds for schools would exacerbate disparities in educational opportunities, and actually hurt students from poorer districts. For example, a spokesman for the Kansas City School District explained how districts with higher property taxes, who can offer larger salaries to school employees, draw talented teachers away from poorer districts. Two attorneys who joined the state as defendant-intervenors are currently representing plaintiffs in Gannon v. State, another school funding suit in Kansas. In their 2010 motion to intervene in Petrella, the attorneys emphasized that both adequacy and equality are critical factors to ensuring a constitutional school finance system. One of the attorneys, Alan Rupe, says that all of the districts in Kansas need more money, insisting that “once everyone is receiving an equal opportunity for an adequate education, then we can talk about whether to lift the cap.”