The gloves are coming off as school districts, parents and legislators prepare to duke it out in court over Kansas’ school funding formula. At odds are two lawsuits, each challenging the way the state funds education.
In early November Schools for Fair Funding, a lobbying group, filed a lawsuit against the State of Kansas on behalf of a group of parents, alleging that public schools are not being funded adequately and are denying Kansas children the right to an education. More specifically, the suit maintains that four school districts – Wichita, Kansas City, Hutchinson and Dodge City – and 32 students from those representative districts are being denied adequate education. The Gardner Edgerton School District is one of 63 districts helping to fund the suit.
In mid-December a group of parents from the Shawnee Mission School District filed a motion in federal court challenging the constitutionality of Kansas’ school funding formula – currently there is a cap on the Local Option Budget, the amount of funding districts can raise through local taxes. The Shawnee Mission parents want to be able to option local tax dollars to supplement the amount of funds the district receives from the state.
Their action was spurred by that district’s plan to close several schools that have experienced declining enrollments. Initially the group wanted to buy some time for those schools on the chopping block, however district officials have since moved forward with their plans to close or shift attendance areas.
“This legal action is an effort by the parents and citizens to help the district obtain the necessary funding it needs to provide the best education possible to all of its students across the entire district,” read a statement released by the parents named in the lawsuit.
More recently, on Dec. 23, Schools for Fair Funding filed an additional motion to intervene in the case filed by Shawnee Mission parents earlier in the month. Schools for Fair Funding alleges that the Shawnee Mission suit wishes to convert the statewide school funding plan to a local funding plan, shifting the responsibility of funding education from the state onto local property taxpayers.
In a statement released by Schools for Fair Funding, the group said, “Kansas Courts have consistently held that the responsibility to fund the education of children in Kansas does not fall on the local district, but rather on the state as a whole. Vastly different district wealth across the state requires that limits be placed on wealthy district spending. It is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Kansas and U.S. Constitutions to make the education of a child a function of or dependent upon the wealth of the district in which the child resides. A local wealth-based funding scheme is clearly unconstitutional.”
Kansas Representative Mike Kiegerl said that Johnson Countians do pay a disproportionate amount of taxes and receive a smaller amount of return compared to other counties in the state.
“We pay 32 percent of the taxes, we have 18 percent of the students (in the state) and we receive eight percent of the money we send to Topeka,” Kiegerl said. “The problem is this, our property taxes are high because we have high value property; if you live west of Topeka in a small town, the property values are very low, so local income is going to be low. The rich counties like Johnson and Sedgwick should be supporting the smaller counties, but four to one is not reasonable.”
He said that it is imperative during the upcoming session that the legislature address financing for K-12 education, which comprises 52 percent of the state budget.
“The only winners in these lawsuits are the lawyers. If they prevail we could have a situation like in Missouri where we don’t have the money to keep going. We need to have a look at this issue, that is the biggest issue in our budget and it shouldn’t be sacrosanct,” Kiegerl said.
Competing lawsuits put school funding at center stage