A three-judge District Court panel in Kansas recently held that it was a “clear fact that constitutional inadequacy from any rational measure or perspective clearly has existed and still exists in the State’s approach to funding the K-12 school system.” The ruling, issued on December 30, 2014 is consistent with the panel’s prior ruling in this case. The Court re-iterated its constitutional stance in response to a remand order of the Kansas Supreme Court issued last March.
As we reported previously, the Kansas Supreme Court in its March decision embraced the demanding standards for an adequate education originally adopted by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Rose v. Council for Better Education, and remanded the current case to the three-judge panel in Shawnee County to consider whether the public education financing system enacted by the legislature was reasonably calculated to enable all Kansas public school students to meet or exceed those standards. Looking at whether the legislature had met specific cost targets – and not explicitly at whether the State’s education system met the standards set forth in Rose – the three-judge panel had previously ruled that the extensive reductions in state aid since 2009 were unconstitutional.
In its current decision, the three-judge panel said that the Rose standards had previously been incorporated in state statutes and that it had implicitly been guided by them. Now the panel expressly held that the current system is unconstitutional under the Rose standards. Although advised by the Kansas Supreme Court to not rely solely on spending as “the touchstone for adequacy,” total spending again played a significant role in the panel’s decision because the defendants did not present any credible evidence to counter the two state-authorized cost studies that had been the basis for its prior decision. The panel essentially readopted its prior decision concerning funding amounts in its entirety. Among other things, the court also found a meaningful correlation between falling test-scores for Hispanic and African-American students, as well as economically disadvantaged students, and the state’s drastic, sustained funding reductions, which have yet to be restored to the more appropriate funding levels where consistent progress was being made in traditionally underperforming schools.
As further evidence of the state’s constitutionally inadequate funding system, the court noted that total school spending since FY2009 had risen only 1.9% against an 11% rise in inflation over the same period – resulting in a 9.1% reduction in purchasing power over that same time period (i.e., between FY2009 and FY2015). And to the extent that local funding sources might act to make up some of these budget deficits – primarily for the wealthier districts in the state – this only served to further underscore the inadequacy of the state’s current funding system and the legislature’s willingness to hinge students’ right to a constitutionally adequate education on “fortuity and local largesse rather than … enforceable constitutional substance,” reasoned the court.
The three-judge panel issued a declaratory ruling that established parameters for legislative action, although the Court also added that “this Court stands always ready on proper application to act to enforce our Kansas constitution. “The case will now go back to the Kansas Supreme Court, which will issue a final ruling.