On Friday, March 7, the Supreme Court of Kansas returned a ruling on Luke Gannon v. State of Kansas, the school finance ruling we've been waiting on all session. At stake was the funding of public schools in Kansas. The decision handed down was variously described as "nuanced," and "complicated," and if you've read all 110 pages, you probably agree. To make matters worse, parties from both sides crowed about this being a great decision for, variously, education, students, and the State.
So, what really happened? What does the decision really say?
Well, you know, it's nuanced. And complicated.
Here are the basics.
The Constitution of the State of Kansas declares that the State must provide for an adequate and equitable public education. Public school funding was cut during the recession, but when revenues returned, Governor Brownback and his Legislators chose to enact an enormous tax cut rather than restore this lost funding. While this lawsuit did not address that decision specifically, the actions of Brownback and the Legislature contributed to the inequity and inadequacy of public school financing in Kansas. The Supreme Court decided on two basic aspects of the suit. You'll hear them referred to as the "equity" part, and the "adequacy" part.
The equity part references the ability for every public school district in Kansas to receive the median level of funding for capital outlay and local option budget, basically buildings, maintenance, and staff. Each District is allowed to raise money locally (through property taxes) to fund these areas, but the school finance formula acknowledges that some Districts have wealthier populations than others, and some districts cannot cover certain costs. One example cited is the greater transportation requirements of Districts in Western Kansas. The State covered the difference between "rich" Districts and "poor" Districts, until 2010, when they stopped paying.
The Court's decision requires the State to cover the equalization, and to restart payments. They have given the State until July 1, 2014 to comply, or the Court will take other measures to see the matter settled.
As you can imagine, some Districts will receive a lot of money from this settling of debts, while others will receive little. One estimated breakdown for Johnson County suggested that the wealthiest Districts, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley, would get almost no money ($64,000 in supplemental aid for BV, $0 for SM), while the most in need, KCK and Olathe, could get $8-10 million each.
While the Court did not lay out a set amount of money that is needed to equalize the Districts, the approximate number from the Kansas Department of Education and Legislative Research Department is $130 million. Note that this is an annual increase, not a one-time payoff. The State's budget would have to accommodate this increase every year.
Several of the usual extremist suspects have pointed out that nobody has mandated the number be $130 million, and the State Legislature will look closely at all of their options before deciding how to proceed. Susan Wagle, Senate President, said, “I don’t know that we have a number for that, and we aren’t going to restrict ourselves."
You can expect shenanigans and whining on the way to July 1. They could, for example, try to lower the amount of aid to all districts, resulting in cuts rather than increases, to "equalize" all the Districts as per the Court's order. They could amend the Kansas Constitution to remake the school finance requirements at the root of the issue. Or they could do nothing, and let the Court decide what should happen on July 1, though this seems unlikely given the rhetoric about how "the Courts should not hold the purse strings."
On the larger issue in the lawsuit, of whether the amount the State allocates to teach each Kansas student is enough to provide an adequate education, the Supreme Court punted. This is the Base State Aid Per Pupil, or BSAPP, or just "Base Aid," that you've heard about. The lower court ruled that the current Base Aid value is too low, and mandated the State raise that level. The Supreme Court agreed, but said the lower court used a poor metric for determining how much money was enough to achieve this standard.
In a previous lawsuit (there have been many) the courts determined a financial formula for determining how much Base Aid was enough. But in Friday's decision, the Court decreed that a monetary formula was inadequate, for two reasons: First, because how much it costs to educate a student is a moving target, changing every year due to inflation, demographics, etc., and second, because they felt there was a need to tie some measure of student achievement to the money. Adequate education, they reasoned, requires a measure of how well educated the students are.
As a guide for the lower court, the Supreme Court cited something called the "Rose Standards" which refers to a Kentucky case that set some achievement standards for measuring educational success.
But basically, the Supreme Court kicked this can down the road, and we will have to wait and see what develops.
What to expect
The equity decision is one the Legislature will have to deal with by July 1, but you can expect the Governor's loyalists to try to wrangle their way out of it, or at least lower the amount they need to spend. Without revenue increases (more taxes) the State's annual budgets can't sustain an increase of $130 million.
The adequacy part will have to come up again, once the lower court makes a new determination on how to calculate the BSAPP. In their original ruling, the lower court mandated an increase of over $400 million. It could take years to reach a decision.
In general, the far right wing seems pretty happy with this Court ruling, as they have already planned several measures to gut public education further. Primary among those are "scholarships" donated by corporations to "rescue" public school students from "failing" Districts and send them to private, for-profit, unaccountable "educational entities," instead. There have also been notions floated to pull all public funding from arts and sports programs because they don't provide gains in "measurable student achievement." Music class isn't on the test, as it were. This is being called "student centered" funding, and is something to watch for.
What can you do, now?
Between now and then there is an election. Vote for State Representatives and Senators who understand the importance of a strong, free, and accessible public education system, for every Kansas child. But do more than that. Do more than vote. Get educated on the issues, talk to your neighbors, friends, and family. Attend a PTA meeting, chat with other parents, and get the word out. Then take them all to vote with you.
Have more questions?
Surely you do. Here is some reading that might help:
- Fun article from 2009 on the cuts made during the recession (historical)
- Article on the original 2013 lower court Gannon ruling (historical)
- The Gannon v. State of Kansas decision itself (long, legal)
- A Gannon explanation from the Kansas Legislative Research Department
- An explanation of Kansas school finance for 2013-14 also from the Kansas Legislative Research Department
- An article from the New York Times that tries to explain all this
Ask your questions in the comments below, and we will do our best to answer them.