What are the Kansas Supreme Court’s options in the school finance case?

Will the new school finance plan end in a dismissal of the long running Gannon lawsuit or will litigation and political fighting continue? 

The answer to that question now lies with the Kansas Supreme Court after the Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly took action in putting a new funding plan into law. 

William Rich, constitutional law professor at Washburn University, said Monday the state’s highest court has several options. 

The court could decide the new law addresses equity and adequacy and then probably dismiss the lawsuit.  

If the court says the new legislation falls short, it will likely do what it has done before — give the Legislature more time to provide a fix. 

Rich said he doesn’t believe Supreme Court justices would stop the opening of school in August if they ruled the Legislature failed to hit the mark. 

And, Rich said, if the court does OK the new plan, he doubts it will retain jurisdiction in the case, even though the measure requires a funding commitment over several years. Rich said the plaintiffs could always reopen the case if they believed the state was reneging on its promises.  

That is how the Gannon case started. In 2006, the state responded to the Montoy lawsuit by promising a three-year increase and a fourth year with an inflation adjustment. Montoy was then dismissed, but by 2010, state school aid was reduced due to the Great Recession and then the tax cuts implemented by Gov. Sam Brownback. That led plaintiff school districts to launch Gannon. 

In response to last year’s court ruling, which told the Legislature to add an inflation adjustment, the new law would increase K-12 funding by approximately $90 million annually for the next four years on top of already increased funding approved last year.  

Legal briefs from the state and plaintiff school districts are due before the court on April 15. The plaintiff districts say the funding in the new legislation remains roughly $270 million short. Oral arguments are set for May 9 and the court has said it will rule no later than June 30.   

For schools planning for the next school year, time is short, and the court has noted this. In its last Gannon decision, the court repeated what it said in Montoy: “Time is running out for the school districts to prepare their budgets, staff their classrooms and offices, and begin the . . . school year. School districts need to know what funding will be available as soon as possible.” 

Over the years, some legislators have accused the court of inappropriately dictating to the Legislature how much to spend on schools. But Rich said he doesn’t believe the court has overreached into the legislative arena. On the contrary, Rich said the court would have been better off politically by “taking the easy road.” But he said the court has been fulfilling its constitutional duty by requiring the Legislature to provide the funding that the state’s own experts said was needed. Since 2000, three education cost studies funded by the Legislature have said state funding wasn’t adequate to meet the state’s educational goals for students.    

And Rich said he thinks it would be unwise — as some legislators have proposed — to change the Kansas Constitution to remove school funding decisions from the state’s highest court.  

“Generally speaking, Kansas is in the middle of most (state) supreme courts that have been facing the same underlying issue,” he said. 

The Kansas Supreme Court has been a factor in helping the Legislature make politically difficult decisions, Rich said. “Inflation makes it necessary for the Legislature to continue increasing state funding. The political pressure is always there to limit the state budget. The politics make it difficult for the Legislature,” he said. 

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