A few years ago, some Shawnee Mission School District parents filed a lawsuit challenging a state limit on local school spending, saying it violated their federal constitutional rights.
Begun in 2010, the parents’ lawsuit, Petrella v. Brownback, argue that Kansas shouldn’t cap the amount of local property tax money the district can spend on education.
The Petrella case is separate from the school funding case Gannon v. Kansas, which is now before the Kansas Supreme Court. That lawsuit by four school districts argues that the state has failed to fully fund schools, violating a requirement of the Kansas Constitution.
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In the Petrella case, the parents are swimming against years of litigation and legislation that formed the way schools in Kansas are funded. The state Legislature enacted the cap to help equalize economic disparities among Kansas’ 286 school districts.
Lawyers for the parents want the U.S. high court to look at the state funding system in a different way. They argue that the cap creates a new inequality that punishes districts such as Shawnee Mission.
Kansas provides extra aid to make up for differences among districts in property values and in the makeup of student populations. Disadvantaged and English-learning students, for instance, are more costly to educate.
“But the cap isn’t about equity,” said Tristan Duncan, an attorney for the parents. “All the cap does is handicap districts like Shawnee Mission.”
If district parents decide to spend more of their taxes on their schools, it takes nothing away from other districts or their students, Duncan said.
Also lost in the school financing discussion is that the distinction often made between so-called wealthy and poor districts is misleading, Duncan said. With both the funding formula and local cap in play, a district like Shawnee Mission can become “revenue poor” because more money is given to other districts, she said.
“We don’t dispute Kansas City, Kansas, and other areas may have relatively lower property values, but that doesn’t mean they actually have less money to spend in the classroom,” she said. “In fact, the converse is true.”
In Petrella, Duncan and colleagues, including Harvard constitutional law expert Laurence Tribe, lay out a series of rights that they think the cap violates, including free speech and equal protection. They say education is speech, and because the cap burdens education, it burdens speech.
Restricting the choice to spend more local tax money for their children’s education is a limit on the parents’ personal and political liberty, Duncan said. Kansas doesn’t limit how much residents spend on sewers or parks, only on education, she said.
In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that it wasn’t the federal court’s business to override Kansas’ funding plan.
The court noted that Kansans in the 1960s chose to amend their state constitution to say that the Legislature “should make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”
A state court decision a few years later concluded that Kansas relied too heavily on local financing, making a child’s education a function of “the wealth of the district in which the child resides.” The ruling prompted the measures to equalize funding.
The appeals court said that toward that end, not every state would choose to limit local authority to tax and spend. “But it is manifestly not the province of a federal court to manufacture from whole cloth a novel set of rights that would upend a carefully crafted and comprehensive state funding scheme,” it said.
Bill Rich, a law professor at Washburn University, said that while the Petrella arguments are creative, it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will be interested in taking the case. Federal courts typically defer to the states in matters of education financing, which they don’t consider a fundamental interest of the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s a real stretch,” Rich said.
While money and free speech were linked in the landmark Citizens United campaign spending case, the court probably isn’t interested in expanding that link to education funding, he said.
Duncan acknowledges an uphill battle to get the U.S. Supreme Court’s attention, but she believes it can be swayed by the constitutional issues and by the chance to revisit a 1973 Texas school funding decision, San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez.
In the Rodriguez case, the court said it was leaving open the question of whether spending caps on education funding were constitutional, Duncan said.
In its June ruling, the federal appeals court disagreed with arguments that the cap violated several of the parents’ rights. The cap limits the amount districts can spend in their local option budgets or LOBs.
No court has ever held that a limit on public funding of education was a restriction of free speech, the appeals court said. The LOB cap limits the school district’s authority, but it doesn’t restrict the speech of the parents or their children, it said.
The court also disagreed with the reasoning that the cap is unconstitutional because spending on education is never harmful and the state doesn’t have a legitimate reason to restrict it.
A state could have several reasons for limiting a district’s taxing and spending power, the court said. Districts compete for resources such as high-quality teachers, so it makes sense for the state to keep districts from outspending one another, it said.
“By restricting the authority of local districts to raise funds, Kansas channels education funding decisions to the state level such that additional money will benefit all Kansans,” the appeals court wrote.
A spokesman for the Kansas attorney general’s office said the state doesn’t plan to file a response to the request for a U.S. Supreme Court review unless the court asks for one.
If the Supreme Court chooses not to review Petrella, it would continue in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan.
From the request by the plaintiffs, who are Shawnee Mission School District parents, seeking U.S. Supreme Court review of Petrella v. Brownback:
“In a nation founded on liberty, self-governance, equal opportunity, and local initiative, it is perhaps surprising that any state would prohibit local citizens from banding together to improve their schools through collective civic action at no cost to the citizens of other localities in the State and without harm to their children. But Kansas strangely does just that.”