Kansas school-funding lawsuit suit hinges on what’s ‘suitable’

06/02/2012 5:00 AM

08/06/2014 2:04 AM

For the second time in a decade, a coalition of Kansas school districts will head to court this week to challenge the way the state funds public education.

The Wichita district is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, Gannon v. State of Kansas, which claims that current levels of school funding violate the state Constitution and deprive students of a suitable education.

“I don’t think any of us want to be where we are, moving forward with this, but right now that’s the only option we have,” said John Allison, superintendent of Wichita schools.

Schools “have an obligation … to provide suitable education,” he said. “And they can’t do it without money.”

A three-judge panel in Topeka will begin hearing the case Monday.

It follows a 2005 Kansas Supreme Court ruling – the Montoy case – that the state’s school funding formula was unconstitutional, after which lawmakers pledged to increase funding by $1 billion over several years.

Since that ruling, however, declining state revenue has prompted legislators to roll back much of the new funding, leading Wichita and 53 other districts to file suit to restore it.

“We thought we had it fixed. We thought we were done with this business,” said John Robb, lead attorney for the coalition Schools For Fair Funding.

“And then those who oppose public education used the economy as an excuse to renege on their constitutional duties. … The Constitution does not say, ‘You shall suitably fund the schools only if there’s plenty of money in the checkbook.’ It does not say that.”

The Wichita district has paid about $725,000 over the past three years to help fund the lawsuit. School board members passed a resolution in February authorizing up to $6 per student per year, or about $300,000, to continue financing the litigation.

Other districts helping pay for the lawsuit include Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose office has hired a Wichita law firm to represent the state in the case, said that although education spending has been reduced since 2006, the state hasn’t seen the dramatic erosion in student achievement that many predicted would occur.

“The economic crisis that started in 2008 and in some ways endures until today is unprecedented in modern U.S. history,” Schmidt said. “The Legislature did a remarkable job in minimizing the effect on public education.”

‘Suitable’ is the key

The trial, which is expected to take a month or more, probably will focus on one word in the state constitution: suitable. That’s the term used in Article 6, Section 6, which says that the Legislature “shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

So what is a “suitable” education? And more precisely, what does it cost?

Robb, the school districts’ attorney and a partner at Somers, Robb & Robb in Newton, says the questions were answered by at least two cost studies.

An analysis by Augenblick & Myers in 2001 found that K-12 education in Kansas was underfunded by about $800 million. Another, conducted by the Legislative Division of Post Audit in 2006, revealed similar findings.

Both studies put the price tag of a “suitable” education at about $6,000 per student, Robb said. Simply figuring for inflation since the school finance formula was established in 1993, the level should be $5,723, he said.

For the upcoming school year, after a $40 million funding boost from state lawmakers last month, the base state aid per pupil is $3,838.

“That $58 (in new per-pupil funding) does not begin to make up for the hundreds we’ve lost” over the past three years, said Allison, the Wichita superintendent. Since 2009, the district has cut more than $50 million from its budget because of reductions in per-pupil state aid and capital outlay funds.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, said neither the Augenblick & Myers study nor the Legislative Post Audit took issues of cost-effective structures or processes into account, so numbers were inflated.

“We may not know what it costs to efficiently achieve required outcomes, but there is strong evidence that the current funding formula provides schools with more money that is needed annually to educate kids,” Trabert said.

“States can spend a lot of money and get the same result as those that spend a lot less,” he added. “The answer isn’t more money, it is how the available resources are spent.”

Robb responded: “His ‘Alice in Wonderland’ view of public education simply isn’t grounded in reality.

“It wasn’t the plaintiffs that went out and did these studies. This was the state of Kansas itself that commissioned them to be done,” Robb said. “He doesn’t like the results of the study, but they exist and they do quantify what it costs to provide an adequate education.”

Robb said he plans to call more than 40 witnesses, including Allison and a handful of other Wichita administrators and teachers.

He does not plan to call students to the stand, but 32 are named as plaintiffs in the Gannon lawsuit. Among them – and the case’s namesakes – are three children of the Rev. Jeff Gannon, pastor of Chapel Hill Fellowship in Wichita.

Contributing: Associated Press

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