In a unanimous 110 page decision that avoided an immediate confrontation with the legislature, the Kansas Supreme Court last week expressly adopted the demanding standards for an adequate education originally adopted by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Rose v. Council for Better Education, and then remanded the case to the District Court to reconsider under the newly-articulated standard its ruling that would have required the legislature to immediately increase school funding by over $400 million. Gannon v. State of Kansas. The three-judge district court panel had held that the extensive reductions in state aid that the legislature had enacted since 2009 are unconstitutional.
The Rose standards — which have also been adopted by five other state Supreme Courts —- describe seven basic goals of the state’s education system in substantive terms such as providing “ skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization,” “sufficient knowledge of economic, social and political systems to enable the students to make informed choices,” and “sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently.” The Kansas Supreme Court held that the adequacy component of the state constitution will be met when:
….the public education financing system provided by the legislature for grades K-12 — through structure and implementation —-is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed the standards set out in Rose….
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court because in its prior deliberation the lower court had looked only at whether the legislature had met specified cost targets, rather than whether the education system met the Rose standards.
While substantially cutting school funding over the past five years, the Kansas legislature has also enacted billions of dollars worth of tax cuts. Anticipating this major ruling from the state’s Supreme Court, Governor Sam Brownback and several legislative leaders had declared that the courts had no authority to review school funding decisions made by the governor and the legislature, and hinted that the executive and legislative branches would refuse to follow any court orders that would order them to increase school funding. The Kansas Supreme Court’s recent order has avoided an immediate constitutional confrontation by sending the case back to the district court for further review, but it is likely that under the tough adequacy standard that the Supreme Court has adopted, the district court will find the present funding scheme to be inadequate. The Supreme Court also discussed in great detail the issue of judicial review and concluded in very strong terms that
Determining whether an act of the legislature is invalid under the people’s constitution is solely the duty of the judiciary. The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore, or waive this duty.
The Supreme Court also remanded to the district court for further consideration “supplemental general aid payments” of $120 million due to low wealth school districts under a statutory scheme that awards these funds to supplement the amounts raised by school districts that have adopted property tax levies above the mandated state property tax requirements. The district court is to take action to require payment of these funds unless the legislature takes action before July 1, 2014 to pay the districts this amount or to amend the statute in a manner that provides all school districts “ reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.”
March 11, 2014