Issuing its fourth decision since 2014 in Gannon v. State, the Kansas Supreme Court held yesterday that the state’s education financing system, is “not reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the minimum constitutional standards of adequacy. ” It ordered the state to enact a new constitutionally-acceptable education funding system by June 30, 2017.
The Gannon case was brought in 2010 to challenge the cuts in education funding that the state has implemented since the 2008 recession. In its first Gannon decision in 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court held that “adequacy” under the Kansas constitution should be assessed in accordance with the six standards that had been articulated by the Kentucky Supreme Court in its 1989 Rose decision. The Rose standards have also been adopted as adequacy benchmarks by six other state Supreme Courts.
The Court remanded the case to the lower court to re-consider whether the state’s educational finance system was unconstitutional under the Rose standards. The lower court did so and again determined that the current system was unconstitutional. In 2016, the Kansas Supreme Court deferred ruling on the adequacy issues, but upheld the “equity” aspects of the lower court’s decision in February, 2016. At that time, it ordered the state to provide equitable levels of funding to the plaintiff school districts by June 30, 2016, and threatened that the state’s entire public education system would be shut down for the next school year if the deadline was not met. The legislature did make a number of statutory changes in response to the court order, but late last May, the Court held that these changes were not satisfactory and re-iterated its threat to close down the state school system if adequate reforms were not enacted by the end of the next month. The next month, the governor and the legislature met the court’s demands.
The unanimous 83-page decision issued today returns to the adequacy issues that had been deferred last year. Among other things, the court held that the State is failing to provide approximately one-fourth of all its public school K-12 students with basic skills in both reading and math, and that it is also leaving behind significant groups of harder-to-educate students. The state had argued that since 2003 student test scores had substantially risen and that Kansas students now perform well above the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests —-known as the “nation’s report card.” Focusing on student outcomes since the post-recession cuts were put into effect, however, the justices found that the improvements came during the pre-recession period of increased funding, and that after the increases were rolled back beginning in 2009, student achievement began to “falter.” The decline “affected ‘all students’ assessed and especially … “subgroups”—as programs and strategies designed, and known, to be successful in accomplishing the Rose standards were reduced or eliminated.”
The court also rejected the state’s invocation of the recent decision in Morath v. The Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition, 490 S.W.3d 826, 845-46 (2016) in which the Texas Supreme Court outlined a “very deferential” review that would uphold lawmakers’ actions if they merely were reasonable and not arbitrary. The Kansas Supreme Court stated that “our rejection of virtually conclusive deference to the legislature’s enactments is consistent with how various other state supreme courts generally review their own state constitution education articles.”
Consistent with its prior pattern, the court issued a declaratory judgment that allows the governor and the legislature wide discretion to determine precisely how a new funding system should be crafted to meet constitutional requirements; the court did specify, however, that in meeting adequacy requirements, the state cannot compromise equity considerations. As in the past, the court has retained jurisdiction and has made clear that a failure to meet the June 30, 2017 deadline “will mean that the state’s education financing system is constitutionally invalid and therefore void.” Presumably, that implies once again that if a new constitutionally-valid funding system is not in effect by the deadline date, no further funds for K-12 education could flow and all public schools would be shut down beginning on July 1, 2017.