Equitable Education Funding in the United States
This case focused on whether school funding by the State of Kansas was equitable and adequate, as required under the relevant state constitutional provisions regulating the provision of education. Upon finding violations in connection with the equitable distribution of funds and the adequacy of such funds to ensure constitutionally required education, the State of Kansas was required to review and adjust its education funding. This required implementing action by the state legislature, with a continued supervisory role for the state Supreme Court.
In 2010, four Kansas school districts, 31 students, and their guardians sued the State of Kansas alleging that cuts in public school budgets beginning in 2009 had left schools inadequately funded and that portions of the funding were inequitably distributed, in violation of Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution (regulating education provision), state statutes, and due process and equal protection clauses of the Kansas and United States Constitutions. In 2013, a special three-judge panel held that the State had violated Article 6 by underfunding primary and secondary (K-12) public education between 2009 and 2012 and that the legislature had failed to consider the actual costs of providing a constitutionally required education before making its funding decisions. It further held that additional constitutional violations occurred because the legislature either withheld or reduced certain funding to which school districts were statutorily entitled.
On appeal, in March 2014, the Supreme Court of the State of Kansas found that the panel had not applied the correct adequacy test in connection with Article 6 but had properly determined that the State had established an inequitable system. Concerning adequacy, the proper test was: whether “the public education financing system provided by the legislature… – through structure and implementation – is reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed” the Kentucky Rose v. Council for Better Education, Inc. standards which focused on learner outcomes and were codified in Kansas legislation. Compliance with the equity requirement meant “school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.”
The Kansas Supreme Court remanded the case for the panel to make an adequacy determination and to enforce the equity rulings based on the more clearly defined equity standard. Subsequently, the 2014 legislature enacted legislation adding approximately USD 130 million in funding to reduce wealth-based disparities between districts and thereby cure the deficiency. In June 2014, the panel approved this fix as meeting the equity requirement.
In December 2014, the panel reaffirmed that the school funding system was inadequate and reiterated its equity decision finding substantial compliance by the legislature. It found that although funding levels were adequate in July 2008, since then overall funding had dropped 9.1 per cent after accounting for inflation, leaving funding “inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence presented or proffered.”
In March 2015, the Governor signed into law SB 7 which introduced a block grant system that froze school funding at fiscal year 2015 levels for two more years. In response, the school districts filed a motion for declaratory judgement and seeking injunctive relief. Consequently, the panel found SB 7 unconstitutional both in terms of adequacy and equity and issued a temporary restraining order. In July 2015, the Kansas Supreme Court split the case, choosing to consider the equity and adequacy issues separately. In February 2016, the Court found that the State had failed to show that its changes in the school funding system had cured inequities. However, following a stay of proceedings until the end of June 2016, the legislature eventually addressed the inequities.
In March 2017, the Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling on the adequacy of school funding. The Court found that the state’s public education financing system, through its structure and implementation, was not reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education K-12 students meet or exceed the Rose standards. Regarding structure, the Court noted that the financing system merely created a fund by freezing school districts’ funding for two school years at a prior year’s level, which would allow only minimal responsiveness to changing conditions with financial implications, such as enrolment. Regarding implementation, this was deemed inadequate given the state failure to provide approximately a quarter of K-12 students with basic reading and math skills, and the leaving behind of significant groups of harder-to-educate students. The Court found that the evidence showed insufficient tests results to be related to funding levels.
Enforcement of the various decisions took a number of years. For example, in relation to the equity component of the case, in April 2016, the Governor signed into law Senate Substitute for HB 2655 and gave notice of legislative cure. Among other things, HB 2655 changed the formulas for certain types of aid, provided for equalization aid, and allowed SB 7 and other previous school funding legislation to be severed. After further review by the Court, the measures were again ruled unconstitutional in May 2016 and the June 30, 2016 deadline was affirmed. A special session of the legislature addressed the equity issue in June 2016, restoring the equalization formula to its pre-block grant calculation and providing full funding, and equity compliance was achieved. This was approved by the Supreme Court on June 28, 2016. In relation to the adequacy component, ‘further updates will be added to this summary in due course’.
Schools for Fair Funding
This case is one in a line of cases where the Kansas Supreme Court has reviewed the legislature’s school funding formula, found it unconstitutional, and ordered the legislature to cure deficiencies. This decision was particularly significant because it meant that if the legislature was unable to enact an equitable funding formula by the end of June 2016, Kansas public schools would not have opened in August for the 2016-2017 term. Further, while separation of powers issues have been raised (on the argument that the issues are ones for the legislature rather than the judiciary to decide, with a related threat from the State Governor to reduce the judiciary budget and make other changes that would negatively impact judges), this case confirms that courts are able to review state decisions regarding school funding and make determinations as to the legality of any state measures to correct funding inequities and inadequacies. As in any education case, it is important to consider the impact on the children and young people affected, given the fact they are unable to put their education on hold during long-term litigation.
This summary was prepared by ESCR-Net and reprinted with permission.
Non-discrimination and equality are core elements of the international human rights normative framework. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every human being is entitled to all rights and freedoms “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, […]