Academic journal article Education Next

Trouble in Kansas: Parents in a Wealthy District Sue to Pay More Taxes

Academic journal article Education Next

Trouble in Kansas: Parents in a Wealthy District Sue to Pay More Taxes

Article excerpt

Kansas's judicially grounded regime of equitable school spending recently led to a most peculiar federal case, Petrella v. Brownback, in which parents from a wealthy suburban Kansas City school district, Shawnee Mission, sued for permission to raise their property taxes so that they could spend more on education.

The case is striking both for its facts and for the plaintiffs' far-reaching claims.

Like some other states, such as Vermont and Texas, Kansas has responded to school finance litigation by limiting how much school districts can spend. Following a 1991 trial court decision in Mock v. State invalidating an existing plan, the legislature under a state judge's supervision enacted a sweeping reform that met his standards for equity yet made a concession to wealthier districts with provision for a local-option budget. The state would provide a base level of funding per pupil but allowed districts to levy additional local taxes up to a cap of 25 percent of their base. By 2010 the cap had risen to 30 percent or, with approval of district voters, 31 percent.

In the wake of the recent economic downturn, the state reduced its base payment to all districts. Noting Shawnee Mission's nearly $20 million in budget cuts over two years and plans for school closures, the plaintiffs asked the court to enjoin the local cap.

The plaintiffs asserted that the cap violates several constitutional guarantees. Citing Supreme Court decisions in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), which held that the liberty guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause includes a right of parents to control the education of their children, the plaintiffs charged that the local cap infringes on that right. As well, by forbidding additional taxes it limits their right to use their property as they wish. Still more inventive, they invoked the First Amendment right of assembly, saying that the cap prevents voters from expressing their collective wishes at the ballot box. These violations together, they contended, constitute a denial of equal protection of the law.

In the 2008-09 school year, at $4,701, Shawnee Mission was 265th out of 296 districts in state funding, receiving $2,643 less per pupil than the average. At $12,174 per pupil, the district's spending was almost $500 below the state average. …

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