Major School Finance Litigation Underway Again in Kansas

Last Updated: June 26, 2012

This article appeared in the June 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Lawyers for fifty-four school districts and thirty-two representative school children in the Gannon v. Kansas school funding lawsuit are making their case to a panel of three state district judge in the Shawnee District Court.

Their constitutional arguments focus on the $500 million in school funding cuts that have occurred in the state. The districts allege that those cuts have resulted in reduced academic achievement for students, particularly for students of color and at-risk students. The Kansas state constitution says that suitable provision must be made for education.

The plaintiff districts are part of an umbrella nonprofit organization, Schools for Fair Funding (SFF). Members include a wide cross section of Kansas districts, representing more than 145,000 students, about one-third of public school enrollment.

The last major school finance, Montoy v. Kansas, resulted in legislative commitment to increase funding for districts by more than $1 billion over three years. After that agreement the Kansas Supreme Court closed the case in 2006.

But plaintiffs allege that cuts to district funding began even before the onset of the recession. Kansas also began a series of tax cuts, including one just signed into law that cuts state taxes by an estimated $4.5 billion over the next six years. SFF attorneys are arguing that the base student cost is currently $2400 less than what the Court ordered, when adjusted for inflation and inreasing performance standards

Attorneys representing the State blame the recession for the lack of available funds and say that the Legislature has done a good job of funding schools despite the economic climate. They claim that the lack of funds is a reasonable basis for the cuts. They also allege that funding levels are not closely linked to student achievement and that districts actually have large reserves of unused funds at their disposal. 

The case is expected to be document-intensive and to use more student data than any previous school finance litigation.

Private inetrests at work?

The state's expert list is largely familiar to those who follow school finance lawsuit news and includes Erik Hanushek and Michael Podgursky, two researched who regularly testify against school districts seeking adequate funding for schools. The list also includes Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at the Kansas University School of Business. Hall has submitted a report to the court that says that the Montoy court's ordered increase in school funding would have to be achieved by cutting 38% of all other government spending.

The Center was established and funded in large part by the Koch Foundation, and Hall is a former policy analyst and economist for Koch Industries.

Charles and David Koch, founders of the Wichita-based Koch Industries, which has annual revenues of over $100 billion, have been major contributors to and underwriters of a number of public policy initiatives that focus on tax cuts, reduction of collective bargaining rights for workers, limiting environmental projects, and other issues.

The Koch Brothers have also been linked financially to a successful effort to reconstitute the Wake County, North Carolina school board, which led to the dimantling of a model diversity plan in the district. 

The Gannon lawsuit was originally filed in 2010. Any decision will likely be appealed immediately to teh Kansas Supreme Court. 

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Read more from the June 2012 Rural Policy Matters.