Postcard — February 13, 2014, 10:42 am

Cutting School in Kansas

The state Supreme Court prepares to decide the fate of Kansas public-school funding

Kansas Day, at a Title 1 school in Wyandotte County, the poorest county in the state. Kansas City, January 29, 2014 © Sarah Smarsh

Kansas Day at a Title 1 school in Wyandotte County, which has the state’s highest poverty rate, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Kansas City, Kansas, January 29, 2014 © Sarah Smarsh

In his State of the State Address on January 15, Governor Sam Brownback declared that Kansas depends “not on Big Government but on a Big God that loves us and lives within us.” The sentiment likely got an amen from Koch Industries, the multibillion-dollar, Wichita-based conglomerate that bankrolls Brownback’s campaigns and profits handsomely from his breathtaking tax cuts. And it likely provoked a groan from public-school districts currently suing the state for underfunding public education. The decision on that case — due any day from the Kansas Supreme Court — has implications for eleven states, including California, New York and Texas, that are facing similar litigation.

During his address from the ornate, newly restored capitol in Topeka, Brownback warned the judicial branch to mind its own business. “On the number-one item in the state budget — education — the Constitution empowers the Legislature, the people’s representatives, to fund our schools,” he said, before hinting at the potentially destructive powers of the judiciary. “Let us resolve that our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else.” Republican representatives sprang from their seats to applaud, apparently indignant that a court might dare hold them accountable to a law created by their own governmental body.

In the 1960s, Kansas legislators amended the state constitution to require “suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” Citing that language, a coalition of students and school districts sued the state in 1999; the case, Montoy v. Kansas, led to a 2005 state Supreme Court ruling that interpreted “suitable provision” as sufficient resources to accomplish schools’ required duties — meeting academic-achievement benchmarks, graduating students from high school, preparing them for state-college admissions standards. “We need look no further than the legislature’s own definition of suitable education,” the justices wrote, “to determine that the standard is not being met under the current financing formula.” So, they said, pay up.

In response, then governor Kathleen Sebelius called a special summer session, and within weeks the mostly conservative legislature passed a three-year plan to increase funding. But it wasn’t long before allocations slid again. The economy crashed just as Sebelius left to join the incoming Obama Administration, and her replacement, Mark Parkinson, a Democrat who had crossed the aisle to serve as her running mate in 2006, approved education cuts amid a budget crisis. Brownback’s election in 2010 led to the education budget’s veritable decimation. Between 2009 and 2012, Kansas public schools lost $511 million in state funding, and in 2012, Brownback signed off on $3.7 billion in cuts to the overall state budget across five years, a move he called “a real live experiment.”

A new coalition of schools sued the state in 2010, arguing that the legislature had failed to make good on the funding remedies pledged after Montoy. A district court ruled in their favor in January 2013, and an appeal sent the case, Gannon v. Kansas, to the state Supreme Court.

During arguments last October at the severe judicial building in downtown Topeka, the state’s lawyers started out by raising concerns about separation of powers, citing federal precedent protecting legislative activity from judicial authority. “If courts had power to declare a law unconstitutional, it would be ironic, given the courts in our country typically are the branch that is not elected, and not answerable to the people,” said lead appellate counsel Stephen McCallister (a bold statement to make in the city that gave rise to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas). McCallister also argued that the cuts were pragmatic, not political. “The Great Recession came, and the revenues went in the tank. At times government has aspirations it then struggles to fulfill,” he said. “The same is true of the Kansas constitution, which is neither a suicide pact nor a bankruptcy pact.”

Justice Eric Rosen, a Sebelius appointee, wasn’t buying it. “It stands before me, in my eyes, as a broken promise,” he said. On the matter of separation of powers, Rosen said his court was enforcing existing law, and therefore within its purview. When the state’s arguments concluded, most of his fellow justices appeared similarly dubious. “If the people wanted to have schools,” said Justice Dan Biles, “presumably they wanted the schools to teach something.” 

The presumption that schools are built to function has remained sturdy here since territorial settlers fashioned schoolhouses from sod. In stripping the resources that allow public schools to educate children, the current state administration — which has demonstrated its preference for privatization in nearly every budget column — perhaps reveals its desire to tear the public system down. 

High-school biology teacher David Reber, a long-time member of the Kansas National Education Association and the chief negotiator for his local union in Lawrence, thinks so. For Reber, today’s funding battle is but one facet of a broad, hostile campaign: impossible testing standards, devised to make the public system appear ineffectual; the erosion of limits on local funding, which favors schools in wealthy districts; and curricular mandates that blur the line between church and state in biology and social-studies classrooms. (Reber critiques these forces on his website, which features, alongside photos of biological specimens and of himself onstage with his metal band, original song lyrics that would be at home on an album called Weird Al Goes Union. To the melody of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”: “School reformers — pompous asses / Tell us how to teach our classes / Profiteers they chart their courses / Fetishizing market forces.”)

Among the other measures Reber singles out is the legislature’s forbidding, in 2013, of the voluntary direct electronic transfer of paycheck funds to political action committees — an important support mechanism for unions in recent years. State lawmakers have also granted to any organization claiming to support teachers the rights to post materials on workroom bulletin boards and to email school districts — prerogatives that were formerly exclusive to unions, per state contract negotiations. The change, Reber says, means “the Koch brothers and their phony unions can come in and have twenty different organizations demanding a bulletin board.”

Kansas remains among the country’s highest-scoring states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress but has begun to slip by its own measures. A Department of Education report showed that proficiency rates dropped from 2012 to 2013, most notably in math, from 85 percent to 78 percent. Test scores also indicate widening gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines; the percentage of black fourth-graders who can’t read at a basic level has risen from 44 percent to 53 percent since 2009, the year the state began back-pedaling on school spending.

The futures of nearly half a million children sitting in Kansas public-school classrooms will soon be shaped by the state Supreme Court. If the justices side with the state and strike down the lower court’s ruling, the precedent they set might threaten funding gains won via litigation in other states. And if justices again side with the districts and require public-school funding to be restored, legislators may once again fail to comply. Reber expressed confidence that the court would uphold the previous decisions calling for budget increases. “I don’t know how they could do otherwise,” he said. “But there’s also little doubt in my mind that the legislature’s gonna say, ‘Oh yeah? Make us.’ ”

Sarah Smarsh has reported on Kansas’s culture, politics, and environment for more than a decade. She is the creator of Free State Media, a public audio-storytelling platform that will focus on Kansas education in Autumn 2014. 

Single Page

More from Sarah Smarsh:

Postcard March 7, 2014, 5:59 pm

A Just Decision in Kansas

The state Supreme Court tells Kansas legislators to restore funding for education. Will they comply?

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



April 2019

Works of Mercy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Destined for Export·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Five years ago, Jean-Sebastien Hertsens Zune went looking for his parents. He already had one set, a Belgian church organist and his wife, who adopted him as a baby from Guatemala and later moved the family to France. But he wanted to find his birth mother and father. When Zune was a teenager, his Belgian parents gave him his adoption file, holding back only receipts showing how much the process had cost. Most people pay little attention to their birth certificates, but for adoptees, these documents, along with notes about their relinquishment, tell an often patchy origin story.

Nowhere Left to Go·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I can’t take chances with my life.”

Like This or Die·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Alex and Wendy love culture. It’s how they spend their free time. It’s what they talk about at dinner parties. When they go jogging or to the gym, they listen to podcasts on their phones. On Sunday nights they watch their favorite new shows. They go to the movies sometimes, but they were bummed out when ­MoviePass went south, so now they mostly stream things. They belong to book clubs that meet every couple of weeks. Alex and Wendy work hard at their jobs, but they always have a bit of time to check their feeds at work. What’s in their feeds? Their feeds tell them about culture. Their feeds are a form of comfort. Their feeds explain things to them that they already understand. Their feeds tell them that everyone else is watching, reading, listening to the same things. Their feeds tell them about the people who make their culture, people who aren’t so different from them, just maybe a bit more glistening. Alex and Wendy’s feeds assure them that they aren’t lonely. Their feeds give them permission to like what they already like. Their feeds let them know that their culture is winning.


= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Once, in an exuberant state, feeling filled with the muse, I told another writer: When I write, I know everything. Everything about the characters? she asked. No, I said, everything about the world, the universe. Every. Fucking. Thing. I was being preposterous, of course, but I was also trying to explain the feeling I got, deep inside writing a first draft, that I was listening and receiving, listening some more and receiving, from a place that was far enough away from my daily life, from all of my reading, from everything.

Setting the World to Rights·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

All his life he lived on hatred.

He was a solitary man who hoarded gloom. At night a thick smell filled his bachelor’s room on the edge of the kibbutz. His sunken, severe eyes saw shapes in the dark. The hater and his hatred fed on each other. So it has ever been. A solitary, huddled man, if he does not shed tears or play the violin, if he does not fasten his claws in other people, experiences over the years a constantly mounting pressure, until he faces a choice between lunacy and suicide. And those who live around him breathe a sigh of relief.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

In California, a 78-year-old patient and his family were informed that he would die within days from a doctor who was communicating via video call on a screen mounted to a robot on wheels.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today