‘The path forward seems clear, though not easy’: Reactions to Gannon ruling pour in from legislators, advocates

Students at work in the Shawnee Mission School District’s new Center for Academic Achievement.

The Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling released Monday finding the legislature’s latest attempt at a school finance formula to be both inadequate and inequitable came as little surprise to many lawmakers and education advocates — but it’s impact sent shockwaves across the state nevertheless.

We put out a call for comment to every statehouse official whose district includes a portion of the Shawnee Mission School District as well as local education advocates and political groups for their reactions to the ruling. Here’s what we got back:

Elected officials

Sen. Barbara Bollier (Republican, District 7)

The ruling on Gannon is not a surprise. The legislature needed to get a bill in front of the Court and was locked into the reality of 21-63-1 (votes needed to pass a bill). Now we can move forward following the Court’s ruling. As a member of the special Senate Committee on School Funding, I am ready to get right to work fulfilling the Court’s requirements for equity and adequacy. Our schoolchildren deserve the opportunity for success! I do not agree with Senate Leadership that we will absolutely not raise taxes. Getting more money into the education system most likely will require tax increases. Legislators like me, who look at data and facts, will consider all options.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (Republican, District 10)

The Kansas Supreme Court has again overstepped its bounds and is again undermining the liberty of Kansas citizens. There is a reason the people voted for the Kansas Constitution that gave specific policy-making duties to the Legislature. Its members are elected by the people; its members are closest to the people; its members are held accountable by the people. When the Court gives rulings that are so deeply mired in policy, it overrides the voice of the people and it prevents them from controlling their government. For the good of the people, this has to stop and by their oath, each member of the Legislature has a duty to protect the liberty of its Kansas citizens.

Rep. Cindy Holscher (Democrat, District 16)

Today the Kansas Supreme Court ruled SB 30 (the school finance bill) unconstitutional. This really should come as no surprise. While the formula itself has merit, the amount of money designated to fund our schools is woefully inadequate. This was vocalized by many of us during the previous session.

This is the fifth decision by the court indicating education is under-funded; the court is likely growing impatient with the legislature. It is time for this body to get this right. Our children deserve to have their schools adequately funded. I look forward to working with my fellow Democrats and Republican colleagues to get this job done!

Rep. Stephanie Clayton (Republican, District 19)

I look forward to the opportunity to work with my legislative colleagues to find a long-term, sustainable solution to the ongoing school funding crisis. Like so many of you, I have also watched my own children grow up in an inadequately funded public school system. I will continue to fight for proper funding, and engage in open dialogue with all of you as we move forward in this process.

Rep. Jan Kessinger (Republican, District 20)

The funding formula worked out during the past legislative session was well-considered and while most pro-public education legislators agree that it was not as much as we would have liked, it was a very good first step toward restoring adequacy and equity in Kansas education funding. I am sorry the court did not look at the circumstances that produced the new formula – an economic reality of trying to dig out of a gaping hole of debt thanks to the Brownback tax experiment and failure of previous legislatures to cut spending to match the tax cuts.

The funding formula was very good in light of the economic reality we find ourselves in. To hit the unidentified target the court has in mind, some creative thinking, major spending cuts and new sources of revenue will be required. It would be nice if the court would give us a target to hit.

Rep. Jerry Stogsdill (Democrat, District 21)

This decision by the Kansas Supreme Court comes as no surprise. After six years of the Brownback administration and his anti-public education conservatives in the Legislature attacking our public schools, colleges and universities, those of us who strongly support our public schools, over the adamant objections of the ultra-conservatives, were able to produce and pass legislation that we knew would simply begin the process necessary to return our schools to the level of excellence they enjoyed prior to 2010. We knew that this was a very positive start but we held no illusions that the bill we enacted would pass muster with the Kansas Supreme Court or provide the level of support our schools and our children need and deserve.

Those of us who support public education welcome this decision as it requires the conservatives to return to the table and, this time, to seriously work with us to enact legislation that provides both the equity and adequacy to meet the needs of our public schools.

I would support a special session of the Legislature. A special session would allow us to go back and work on this one single issue. The future of public education is the most important issue facing our state and deserves our full attention. I doubt that the conservative Republican leadership in the Governor’s office or the Legislature will push for a special session as they will want to wait until January when they will try to give this issue a low priority and attempt to mix it in with other issues of far less importance, just like they did in the 2017 session.

I am personally encouraged by the Court’s decision as it gives us the mandate, the direction and the opportunity to pass the legislation necessary to restore our schools to the level of national prominence that they held prior to 2010. How we handle this issue will determine the future of a generation of Kansas students and will determine the economic future of Kansas.

We are going to need the help and support of our constituents in addressing this issue. I hope every Kansan will demand that their Representative and Senator support our public schools, demand that they vote for legislation that will meet the equity and adequacy requirements of the Kansas Supreme Court and demand that they put party politics aside and do what is right for our children, our citizens and our economic future.

Please contact me if you have any questions or suggestions concerning this matter as they would be most welcome.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley (Democrat, District 24)

I did not vote for this formula the day it was brought to the floor, as we knew at that time that it was far short of what was needed to adequately fund our schools. I supported Rep. Trimmer’s amendment on the day this bill was debated, to fully fund the formula, and it was frustrating to watch so many vote against it. Inserting the Supreme Court into the legislative process has delayed the funding process for another year. The Court pointed out that our children have been attending underfunded schools for 13 of the last 15 years. While many legislators may not currently have children in school, those of us who do share the anger of parents across the state with yet another failed formula. Revenue estimates have been exceeded the last few months, and we have the opportunity this next session to get this right. I look forward to voting for a formula that finally puts the needs of our students first.

Rep. Melissa Rooker (Republican, District 25)

Although the timing of the Gannon opinion took me by surprise, the verdict did not. In my newsletter of July 28 regarding our work on the school finance bill, I wrote:

“When I introduced HB 2270 in February, the policy and funding levels included were the result of years of research, input from the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE) and other education stakeholders, bicameral collaboration, and attention to the decisions handed down in Gannon over the years. Our choices were not arbitrary, but the legislative process is messy and compromise is necessary to keep legislation moving. There are several elements of the final product with which I disagree, but supporting the compromise was vitally important to move the process along and allow the court to review our work.

As the bill evolved, I stayed focused on the goal of drafting a finance formula that restored per pupil funding, with added categories of weighting to address the individual characteristics of the students in each district. We
experienced the difficult consequences of a static funding model during our two-year block grant experiment, making it abundantly clear we needed to ensure our funding mechanism is responsive to changing conditions within each of our school districts.

As with every Gannon proceeding since it came to the Supreme Court, I attended the oral arguments in mid-July. Very little about the content of the formula itself gave the court pause. The provisions at issue are a series of items added in the conference committee process:

• 10% minimum floor for at-risk funding,
• Use of capital outlay funds for property and casualty insurance payments as well as utilities, and
• The requirement for a protest petition to increase Local Option Budget (LOB) from 30% to 33%.

The bulk of the hearing was spent addressing adequacy of funding. The court appeared visibly out of patience with the State’s arguments, particularly questioning the State’s claim that per-pupil funding below 2008-09 levels meet the adequacy test.

I have said since SB 19 passed that funding beyond the current level will likely be ordered. Schools are locking in plans for the upcoming school year, so additional funds will be of more use if schools have time to plan for next year and beyond. Whether we are called back for a special session, or are given part of the 2018 legislative session to craft a remedy, I am prepared to do the work necessary to properly fund our schools.”

Predictions became reality with the delivery of Gannon on Monday

If we remain calm and focused, crafting an acceptable remedy is within our reach. Many will attempt to politicize the situation, criticize activist judges, and turn this into a battle between Johnson County and the rest of the state. Outside special interest groups like Americans for Prosperity are already hard at work spreading their propaganda. However, the children of this state deserve our undivided attention.

Personally, I will be doing my homework and preparing a legislative remedy to offer when we reconvene. In fact, I spent much of Monday afternoon engaged in preliminary conversations surrounding the “to-do list” this opinion lays out. I welcome the opportunity to work in collaboration with my colleagues to find a lasting solution.

With this latest opinion, the problems have been considerably narrowed down and the path forward seems clear to me, though certainly not easy. Finding the consensus necessary to move the appropriate remedy through the entirety of the process will require your patience and understanding for the decisions that lie ahead. In that regard, I trust I will have your support.

Advocate and political groups

Education First Shawnee Mission

We were not surprised that the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the Legislature’s 2017 school finance law unconstitutional. Even with the increased money provided by the new law, the fact remains that we are funding our schools at levels lower than those of the 2008-2009 school year – nearly a decade ago. Education First Shawnee Mission is made up of parents from across the Shawnee Mission School District. We have seen firsthand the impact this chronic underfunding has had on our children and our schools – our class sizes have gone up, critical support positions have been cut, our teachers are overworked and underpaid. The losers in all of this are our children – many of whom will never get back the lost opportunities. The state is clearly shirking its constitutional responsibility to educate our children. We call on all members of the Legislature and the Governor to come together to work out a real solution and to provide the funding necessary to adequately and equitably fund our schools.

Game On for Kansas Schools

The Gannon decision is generally what we hoped for and expected. Our schools have been underfunded for most of the past 16 years, and the legislature cannot continue to delay properly investing in public education and our children’s future. The court’s opinion was measured and did not dictate specific funding levels. It properly rejected the State’s “Successful Schools Model” which had essentially used the average funding levels of 41 schools that performed better than would be expected based upon their demographics. In addition to the obvious problem of setting funding at the average (and thereby cutting the funding of half the schools in the pool), the court noted that these schools had significant numbers of students not achieving academic standards. As the court stated, “Simply put, merely performing ‘better than expected’—while perhaps a test for efficiency—is not our Kansas test for constitutional adequacy.” Gannon decision p. 25. We also believe requiring the legislature to have a plan for increasing funding by the end of April is a reasonable solution and hope that the legislature promptly creates a task force to begin the process of determining an adequate funding level based upon data relating to necessary outcomes and the costs associated with achieving those outcomes. We were extremely disappointed to see the statement from Senate leadership, including local Senator Jim Denning, accusing the court of acting hastily and claiming to be “committed to providing every Kansas student with an exceptional education,” but going on to say “raising taxes to fund this realistic demand is not going to happen.” We question how they intend to provide that exceptional education without providing adequate funding.

Northeast Johnson County Conservatives

This opinion comes as no surprise. In the ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court lays out their case for why the formula is not funded adequately or equitably, although says the general structure is acceptable. The goal apparently is to have more students achieving the “Rose Standards,” although those are a bit ambiguous.

The court appears to believe a significant amount more in funding is necessary to satisfy “Constitutional muster”. (How the Supreme Court defines “Constitutional muster” is not found in the plain text of Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution.) When will the school finance litigation end? Complex finance formulas like this one will continue to lead us into perpetual litigation, as they have in Kansas for over 30 years costing the taxpayers, but more importantly, the students, millions of dollars. What level of taxation will the citizens of Kansas tolerate? Our highest tax bracket is higher than Massachusetts’, and with this ruling the court appears to demand that go higher. No one is able to place a dollar amount on what is needed or required, yet we are told it is not enough. How long do we put synthetic fields on middle schools at a cost close to $700,000 each? How long do we pay astronomical salaries for administrative positions? How long do we pay these attorneys who profit tremendously from school finance litigation? How long do we let the “non-partisan” ideologues say “Schools don’t have enough money”? How long until there is actual accountability? It is the easy path saying our children deserve more. Damn right they do. Our children deserve the best we can provide, but where is the accountability? Where is this money that will soon be ripped out of your pocket going to go? How long will we capitulate to the unions and other left-wing groups that profit from this constant litigation? Throughout this litigation, there is no proof the increased taxation will result in improved performance in the classroom. It will only come with accountability.

MainStream Coalition

We knew the fight was not over. The 2017 Kansas Legislative Session made historic strides when it passed tax reform over the Governor’s veto. But even that historic vote only began to meet the underfunded obligations of the state, and more revenue will be needed before Kansas is able to move forward. As much courage as that tax vote took, the votes needed to fully fund public education simply could not be found. The compromise passed was thought to be a good plan with woefully inadequate funding, and that is borne out by Monday’s Supreme Court ruling, which found the plan neither equitable, nor adequate to the task of educating Kansas children.

The Court has given the state until April 30, 2018, to produce a better plan. Our legislators must now begin to craft the combination of revenue reform and policy initiatives that will bring a suitable education within the reach of all Kansas children. We look forward to working with legislators, keeping the public informed of their progress, and holding them accountable for their votes.

2018 will see the election of a new Kansas Governor and races for all 125 seats in the Kansas House of Representatives. Voters will be paying close attention, and politics as usual will not be acceptable this year. It is time to lay aside party and soapbox, and get to work.

Stand Up Blue Valley

Stand Up Blue Valley has consistently reminded Blue Valley voters that Kansas 2017-18 per-pupil funding is lower than it was in 2009. While we applaud the efforts of the moderate majority in the Kansas Legislature to improve education funding, we are pleased that the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that our schools need and deserve adequate funding.

We are very optimistic that the current pro-public education legislature, now guided by the clear ruling of the Kansas Supreme Court, will get back to business and fund our schools. We will continue to work tirelessly to support the pro-public education legislators who are forced to clean up the mess created by anti-tax extremists. Adequate funding of our schools is only possible by a fair and balanced tax plan that generates the needed revenue to do so.