Court Monitor

Kansas Judges Demand More School Funding

Judicial supremacy has reared its ugly ahead again, this time in Kansas. A three-judge panel of state court judges there has ruled that the Kansas legislature must pour more money down the drain of public school education.

Nothing gives courts the power of the purse, but many state constitutions do have provisions for an "adequate" public school education. In addition, many states (including Kansas) have adopted a set of criteria known as the "Rose standards" that vaguely require an opportunity for students to learn basic subjects so they can function in society. In March 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled against the Kansas legislature and ordered a lower court to apply the Rose standards to determine if Kansas was providing an adequate public school education. Instead, the lower court focused more on spending issues, and essentially ordered the Kansas legislature to spend an additional $1,000 per public school student per year.

In a 117-page opinion rendered on Dec. 30, 2014, the three-judge panel in Topeka, Kansas, declared that "the State's school funding system, as presently situated, remains constitutionally inadequate." Gannon v. Kansas, Case No. 2010CV1569. The Court's finding virtually demands that the Kansas legislature pump another $548 to $771 million a year into public schools, rather than adopt a system based more on local control and support. By basing its decision on the Kansas Constitution, the Court tried to make it impossible for the Kansas legislature to overturn or ignore it. "Since the obligations here declared emanate from the Kansas Constitution, avoidance is not an option," the Court insisted.

But top legislators were not impressed. Kansas Republican Senate President Susan Wagle observed that the three-judge panel resorted to "a very political and antagonistic posture in this ruling." Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt responded to the court decision by saying, "We are disappointed by today's ruling by the panel, which in areas seems in tension with the Kansas Supreme Court's guidance." Kansas Governor Sam Brownback indicated that he would continue his approach of seeking education policy reforms.

Governor Brownback has been a leader in cutting taxes, and spending on public school students has declined a bit. The Court decision tried to disparage the economic quandary of a budget deficit by calling it a "self-imposed fiscal dilemma" that would exist "with or without this Opinion." The three-judge panel essentially told the Kansas legislature to spend another half-billion despite the already-large deficit. There will be an appeal of the ruling and the legislature is not likely to pass anything soon to appease the courts.

Underachievement by students is primarily due to their inability to read well, which does not require hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxpayer spending to solve. Testimony quoted by the Court demonstrated that many teachers at a failing school “didn’t understand how to teach children to read and write," and that test scores improved after the principal and half the teachers were removed and replaced. But the Court attributed the subsequent improvement in test scores to a series of grants received by that school.

Teaching a child to become an excellent reader based on phonics is easy and inexpensive. It requires only an inexpensive book and some effort by a teacher or parent.