The United States Supreme Court has declined to review a claim by a group of Kansas parents who argue that local municipalities have a federal constitutional right to tax themselves at any rate they please to fund education. In practical terms, this means that the parents failed to persuade at least four of the Supreme Court justices that the decision of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals warranted review by the nation’s highest court.
The case, brought by parents in the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD), resulted from the extensive cuts to education that the Kansas legislature has instituted in recent years. An adequacy cases, Gannon v. State, challenging these cuts is currently pending before the Kansas Supreme Court. But in the meantime, SMSD, like other school districts has been forced to lay off teachers and substantially reduce services. Unlike most other districts, though, SMSD, a relatively affluent school district, is precluded by Kansas law from raising additional funds through local property tax increases, even if local voters agree to higher taxes to support education.
Circuit Court Judge Carlos F. Lucero, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, stated that these parents from a relatively wealthy school district were seeking to involve federal courts to “upend decades of effort toward establishing an equitable school finance system in Kansas.” Calling their legal strategy in this case a “kitchen-sink approach,” he listed the various rights that the group of parents claimed the local property tax cap violated, including rights: “to free speech, to petition the government, to associate, to vote, to education, to equal protection of the laws, to direct the upbringing of their children, and to dispose of their property.”
The parents’ petition stated that one reason it has been particularly hard hit by the cutbacks in state aid is that it has been promoting voluntary integration and that its minority and English Language learner population has increased by 116% in recent years. Noted constitutional scholar and Harvard Law professor, Laurence H. Tribe, was co-counsel for the parents group. He had argued in his brief to the Supreme Court that this case presented an occasion to reconsider the question left open in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez (1973) whether the federal constitution guaranteed a right to education. Tribe wrote that education is equivalent to speech and by prohibiting the parents from taxing themselves to improve their children’s education, the state was squelching their free speech rights.