The citizens of the Sunflower State are holding their collective breaths, waiting for the Kansas Supreme Court to hand down its fifth – yes, fifth – opinion in Gannon v. Kansas. Gannon is only the latest in the unending legal-battles over education funding, a fight in perpetuity since the early 1990s. Gannon was originally filed in 2010 with the plaintiffs claiming state funding to education inadequate to meet the constitutional test of the Legislature making “suitable provision.” Gannon is an undeniable artifact of Montoy v. State, a 1999 case that took seven years to conclude. In Montoy, the Supreme Court set an unsustainable bar by ordering the Legislature to increase funding to public schools by $853 million. Two years later the impact of the Great Recession on state revenues made it impossible for the Legislature to maintain that level of support.
The education establishment, smelling blood in the water, inevitably responded by suing the state for more money in the form of Gannon. After a lower court found in favor of the schools in 2013, on appeal the Supreme Court pivoted from Montoy by claiming that funding adequacy is not determined by total spending, but by being “reasonably calculated” to have students meet certain “Rose” standards. The Kansas Legislature responded in 2015 by throwing out the old finance formula and passed a short-term, “block grant” funding scheme against the promise of a new outcomes-based financing model. Such a radically different funding approach was a non-starter in the election year politics of 2016.
In March of this year the Supreme Court in Gannon IV found the block grants law constitutionally inadequate because collectively the justices determined that about a quarter of Kansas students were not meeting acceptable performance standards. This surprised no one as the block grant funding was scheduled to sunset on June 30. The Court acknowledged this expiration as their deadline to create a funding system, while withholding specific guidance on what would be acceptable.
Despite the Court telling the Legislature there are “literally hundreds of ways” they could create an approach that meets constitutional muster, a much different looking 2017 Legislature instead passed a redux of the law that was replaced in 2015, one rooted not in outcomes, but one that utilized a complicated weighted per-pupil formula. Funding was increased by an estimated $290 million over the next two years.
Oral arguments were heard in July and once again the justices seemed to pivot, hinting that the money might not be sufficient – the plaintiffs are seeking an increase of $893 million – and questioning the model that was used as the framework for the new law. While awaiting Gannon V keep these in mind:
- The fickle Court seems to be making it up as they go along – seemingly changing their priority with each decision.
- More likely than not, Gannon V will not be a conclusive decision. The Court will maintain jurisdiction that will lead to Gannon VI and beyond.
- Regardless of the final disposition in Gannon, another lawsuit by the education community is not only predictable, it is inevitable.