Society and Culture, Education, Politics and Public Opinion, Law and the Constitution

What’s the matter with Kansas school finance?

Image Credit: Editor B (Flickr) CC

Image Credit: Editor B (Flickr) CC

Last month, the Kansas State Supreme Court heard Gannon v. Kansas, in which the plaintiff sued the state of Kansas charging that the legislature’s school-funding plan violated the state constitution. The case received national attention, with the New York Times billing it as a showdown between cold-hearted Kansas legislators who refused to adequately fund their schools and judges who should be looking out for the kids. That’s certainly one spin, but it’s not the whole story. What’s really at stake is whether the courts and the feds will succeed in wresting control over schools from duly-elected state legislators.

The plaintiffs filed suit under the precedent of the 2005 Montoy v. Kansas decision. In Montoy, the judges found that the legislature’s school-funding plan violated article six of Kansas’s constitution, which reads: “The legislature shall provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools …  which may be organized and changed in such manner as may be provided by law.”

The court, ignoring the “provided by law” part, fastened on the word “improvement.” Using a 1999 dictionary to define “improve,” the judges ruled that the constitution essentially required Kansas to ensure its schools show increasing standardized test-scores. Never mind that the judges looked up a different word than appeared in the constitution, and that “improvement” meant something more cultural and holistic than just the result of a bubble-test. The court seized final say in school-funding from the legislature.

Leveraging that case, the Gannon plaintiffs declare that, “the legislature has continuously evaded its duties by adopting new legislation,” which they do not believe satisfied the court’s standard. It’s a curious turn of phrase to accuse a legislature of evading its duties by adopting the school legislation it’s required by their constitution to provide.

The plaintiffs did not, however, make their case that the schools are being underfunded on decreasing school performance. It would have been a hard case to make; Kansas’s statewide SAT average puts it amongst the top 10, and Kansas spends almost 14% more per-pupil than the national average.

Rather, the bulk of their case is made by saying that Kansas must fund it’s its schools sufficiently to meet the burdens of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The thing is, though, that at this point NCLB is a bad joke. NCLB mandated the fantasy-goal that all schools must reach 100% proficiency by 2014. Congress never expected the law would survive long enough to see every school in America face harsh federal sanctions for not being perfect. Literally no amount of money spent is likely to meet this goal, and by extension the plaintiff’s standard.

Since the brief was filed, Kansas received a waiver from the Department of Education releasing them from NCLB-imposed mandates. On one hand, this makes a considerable part of the plaintiff’s case moot. On the other hand, the strings attached to the waiver made it only another example of federal intrusion into local schools. The waiver was only granted on the condition that Kansas adopted the Obama administration’s particular policy preferences, such as the Common Core. The feds now have the leverage to micro-manage Kansas school policy; earlier this year they threatened to revoke the waiver because Kansas convened a task-force rather than conducted a pilot-study on the teacher evaluation regime that they were mandated to adopt.

If the court sides with the plaintiffs in Gannon, then Kansans will find that the courts control their school’s purse strings, the feds control their policies, and that their legislators, and by extension they the citizens, have less and less say left in their schools.

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