Education funding victory for Kansas students poses challenge to Illinois - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Education funding victory for Kansas students poses challenge to Illinois

Kansas' education funding court victory is a win for national funding reform efforts.

After four years, the Shawnee County District Court in Kansas ruled in December in the case Montoy, et. al v. State of Kansas, et. al that Kansas's public school financing system violated children's rights in the state of Kansas and under the U.S. Constitution. Originally filed in December 1999 by two school districts and students in those districts, the case challenged the Kansas legislature's responsibility to adequately provide for public education. The plaintiffs were prompted by what they saw as conspicuous funding inequities between districts, especially in larger school districts with a higher number of minority, poor, and special need students.

The decision directs Kansas political leaders to come up with a constitutional funding plan to raise the education budget by nearly $1 billion (adjusted for inflation) by July 1, 2004, based on figures recommended in a report by Augenblick and Myers, a nationally known education research firm. Augenblick and Myers was also hired by the Metropolitan Planning Council in 2000, and later the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) in 2001, to produce a similar study for Illinois , which was used by ISBE to support the Education Funding Advisory Board (EFAB)'s foundation level increases.

The case builds upon over 20 years of intense scrutiny and litigation over public education funding in Kansas. In 1973, the School District Equalization Act was passed to address a court decision finding inadequate state aid leading to disparities between school districts. The School District Equalization Act was then disputed by lawsuits in the early 1990s, which challenged the then-governor and legislature to devise an improved formula for funding schools. In 1992, they responded by shaping and enacting the School District Finance and Quality Performance Act on revised funding formula guidelines, as well as creating the School District Capital Improvements State Aid Program to help school districts with capital expenditure costs. The same year, new lawsuits challenged the Act, which was ultimately overturned by the Kansas Supreme Court in 1994.

The recent December 2003 victory did not come easily. It was first dismissed and only reconsidered when the Kansas Supreme Court remanded it.

With the litigious past of school funding acts and reforms in Kansas, how does the recent court case matter? Since enactment of the School District Finance and Quality Performance Act in 1992, funding inequities have actually worsened in the state, due to damaging legislative changes to the Act over the past decade. Its original intent had essentially been nullified, and though the passage of the act was valuable, the anticipated benefits to the state's school-age children have not occurred. Also, since the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, elementary and secondary school students in every state must progressively excel on an annual achievement test. Fulfilling these federal requirements required rethinking and even overhauling existing education funding structures.

In Kansas, the 300 percent funding disparity between some poor and wealthy districts particularly moved the decision, which found the link between student achievements and increased funding to be inherent to school success, especially for students who are consistently left behind. If the governor and legislature fail to act on the decision, the court can take additional measures to ensure its implementation. After July 1, 2004, the defendants can appeal the decision, raising the possibility of a drawn-out struggle. Kansas currently ranks as the second worst state in having the largest funding gap per student between schools with the smallest percentage of minority students and those with the highest percentage of minority students, according to the Education Trust, a leading Washington, D.C.-based education organization.

The Education Trust also reports that Illinois has among the widest funding gaps in the nation between students in schools with low concentrations of poverty and those with higher concentrations of poverty. The funding gap per student between schools with the smallest percentage of minority students and those with the highest percentage of minority students in Illinois is the eighth worst in the country. The opportune legal success in Kansas is not necessarily replicable in Illinois, nor does it guarantee a dedicated, long-term victory for children due to the possibility of appeal, but Kansas, whose entire state population is nearly equivalent to that of the city of Chicago, sends a powerful message to Illinois and the rest of the nation that the pressures of more mandates are not impediments, but catalysts for optimistic change.

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