Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Rationale behind ruling gives credibility to funding decision

3/11/2014

After four years, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled on an important case involving K-12 public education funding — Gannon v. State of Kansas. A previous lawsuit ruling in 2005 on the same matter focused on the amount of funding, leaving legislators thinking the courts had moved beyond their constitutional powers. In the meantime, the Legislature has continued to decrease education funding each year since 2008 as it dealt with revenue shortfalls during the recession. This time around, the courts said the Legislature wasn’t living up to its constitutionally-imposed adequate funding responsibilities and needs to fix it.

The ruling focused on two areas: adequacy of funding and equitable distribution of education funding.

Unlike previous rulings, in which many lawmakers immediately said the court was ruling from the bench — meaning they were overstepping their bounds in sharing their opinions on laws that exceed the boundaries of the language in the law and allegedly did so without merely offering a legal interpretation of laws that come before them by way of lawsuits — Friday’s Gannon ruling outlined why the court did what it did.

It is instructional that the first four pages of the ruling describe and justify the reasons for the court’s interpretation of the law. Here are some excerpts from the 110-page ruling:

“The Kansas Constitution is the work of the people. In their constitution, the people have distributed governmental power among three departments or branches, i.e., the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Under this separation of powers, the judiciary interprets, explains, and applies the law to actual controversies. It is the judiciary’s obligation to interpret the constitution and safeguard the basic rights reserved to the people. Determining whether an act of the Legislature is invalid under the people’s constitution is solely the duty of the judiciary. The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore, or waive this duty.

“Under the separation of powers doctrine embodied in the Kansas Constitution, Kansas courts do not issue advisory opinions but decide actual cases or controversies, i.e., the claims must be justiciable. If the claims are not justiciable, the case must be dismissed ...

“Under the facts of this case, the school districts’ claims arising under Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution present a justiciable case or controversy because they are not political questions. ...

“Through the constitutional assignment of different roles to different entities, the people of Kansas have ensured that the education of public school children is not entirely dependent upon political influence or the constant vigilance of voters.

“Through Article 6, the education provision of the Kansas Constitution, the people expressly assigned duties to the Kansas Legislature that both empower and obligate. Under this article, the Legislature must perform its duties in compliance with the requirements the people have established.

“The Kansas Constitution clearly leaves to the Legislature the myriad of choices available to perform its constitutional duties under Article 6. But the judiciary is the final authority to determine adherence to constitutional standards. The people’s constitutional 3 standards must always prevail over the legislature’s statutory standards should the latter be lower.

“Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution contains at least two components: adequacy and equity.

“Under the facts of this case, the district court panel did not apply the correct test to determine whether the State met its duty to provide adequacy in K-12 public education as required under Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution. Therefore partial reversal and remand is required for the panel to make an adequacy determination, complete with findings, after applying the correct test to the facts.

“Regardless of the source or amount of funding, total spending is not the touchstone for adequacy in education required by Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution.

“To determine compliance with the equity requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, Kansas courts do not require adherence to precise equality standards. Instead, school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.

“Under the facts of this case, the district court panel correctly held the State established unconstitutional, wealth-based disparities by withholding all capital outlay state aid payments to which certain school districts were otherwise entitled under K.S.A. 2012 Supp. 72-8814(c).

“Under the facts of this case, the district court panel correctly held the State established unconstitutional, wealth-based disparities by prorating and reducing supplemental general state aid payments to which certain school districts were otherwise entitled under K.S.A. 2012 Supp. 72-6434 for their local option budgets.”

Legislators and the governor see this ruling as a win because it doesn’t commit them to a specific dollar amount to pay school districts, so they retain their spending authority. However, it still obligates them to fix the funding formula by July 1. The ball is in the executive and legislative court to make things right and they don’t have much time to get it done, lest they force the court to rule again.

— Jeanny Sharp, editor and publisher

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