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Schools go to court for more funding

Amy Scott Jan 6, 2015
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Just before the new year, a three-judge panel in Kansas ruled that public schools are so under-funded as to violate the state’s constitution. Lawsuits like the one in Kansas have become a popular tactic to try to win more money for public schools. Thirteen states, from Texas to Pennsylvania, are facing active litigation.

In Hutchinson, Kansas, funding shortages have caused class sizes to increase, says Shelly Kiblinger, superintendent of public schools. Staff have also been let go. While the district once had three school resource officers, it now struggles to keep one. Five years ago, the district joined others in suing the state.

“Students were not receiving adequate funding,” Kiblinger says. “We were not able to provide them with a suitable public education, which is required under the constitution of the state of Kansas.”

The ruling in Kansas means the legislature could have to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars for public schools. More money isn’t on the way yet. The state is expected to appeal. An earlier case in Kansas led the state legislature to increase funding for schools, only to cut it back during the recent recession.

“Even when the rulings are in favor of the school districts, you don’t necessarily see the changes that most people would anticipate,” says Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant with the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan policy group.

He points to Ohio, where he says a series of court victories hasn’t led to significant changes in funding. 

Often it comes down to a battle between the courts and state lawmakers. The Supreme Court in Washington state has threatened to shut down the public schools or fine legislators if they don’t come up with increased funding.

In Kansas, Griffith says, the state doesn’t have the money, and the only way to increase education spending would be to raise taxes.

“I think there would be a huge reluctance in the state of Kansas to do that,” he says.

Then there’s the question of whether more money leads to better schools. After its own court battles, Wyoming now spends more on education per student than any other state, but student achievement still lags. Money alone doesn’t fix schools, says Michael Rebell with the Campaign for Educational Equity.

“Money does matter if it’s used well,” he says. “Without it, you can’t make progress, especially when we’re talking about kids from low-income, high-poverty backgrounds.”

With schools enrolling more kids than ever with special needs, he says the cost of educating them is just getting higher.

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