••• Education •••

Gannon VI, Die Hard and All That Jazz

The timeless 1988 action move Die Hard teased the audience with classic Hollywood plot misdirection. What appeared to be an international band of criminals kidnapping corporate officials to gain the release of terrorists around the world, turned out to be nothing more than a very sophisticated, daring (and high dollar!) cash grab.

The story arc between the progression of Die Hard and the Kansas Supreme Court’s role in the Gannon case bears striking resemblance. Gannon I, as in the first act of Die Hard, was not at all about money. It was about being “reasonably calculated.” It was about Rose standards. It was about achievement gaps. It was about state assessment scores. Gannon I was a hard turn from the Court’s position in the Montoy case of the previous decade. But in Gannon VI, likely the penultimate decision in this judicial marathon, the Court affirmed that, yes indeed – as Die Hard’s Hans Gruber finally confessed – it really is all about money. But unlike the movie, there is no John McClane third act heroics to thwart the Gannon heist of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, a staggering amount of money that ultimately will have no impact on student outcomes or achievement gaps.

Here’s the CliffsNotes version of the Gannon VI decision. The Court bought the state’s claim that the newest 2018 update to the existing school finance law in the form of SB 423 and SB 61 created a re-do of the law the Court found constitutional in Montoy IV in 2006. In those two bills, the Legislature essentially increased the funding level approved by the Court in Montoy IV and adjusted it for inflation. The Court even recognized the descriptor of the new money offered up by the state: “Montoy safe harbor.”

Close, but not quite. The Legislature stills has more work to do. The Court believes that although the Legislature found the right marina for safe harbor, they still haven’t made anchor at the right dock. In the Court’s eyes, the Legislature incorrectly adjusted for inflation. When, not if, the Legislature makes that course correction, they will have met the constitutional charge to make “suitable provision for finance…”

That’s it. That’s the list. Pundits initially thought the state could pony up another $100 million or so next session and the court would call it good.  But now KSDE says it will take another $364 million to appease the court.

If past is prologue, a compliant Legislature will likely submit to the Court’s demands as has been the case for the past quarter-century. They’ll somehow find the additional money. They always do. The Court will bestow its blessing and Gannon will finally be put to bed just short of its ninth birthday.

Gannon VI is yet another change of direction from this chameleon Court. Remember how important addressing student achievement was to the Court last year in Gannon V – even going as far as dictating the Legislature to commission another cost study to find the “right” amount to meet acceptable outcome levels?

No? Neither did they.

There is nary a mention of student achievement in Gannon VI. During oral arguments, the state solicitor dismissed the WestEd study because the new law had met the aforementioned “Montoy safe harbor.” The Court agreed, apparently forsaking all their previous rhetoric about achievement and spending. Instead, in the end, they merely opted to accept

Montoy + Inflation = Constitutionality.

It took them nearly eight years to get to that?

So much for “total spending is not the touchstone for adequacy in education required by Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution” as the Court said in 2014.

And this is more than just a matter of wasted time. Consider all the (needless) activity that has transpired since Gannon was filed in November of 2010:

-Multiple district court trials/decisions occurred

-Three separate school finance laws were adopted and/or modified (all found unconstitutional)

-Six Supreme Court decisions (with one more to come) were handed down

-Two education cost studies were conducted – one commissioned by the Legislature and one by the plaintiffs (see next bullet point)

-Millions of education dollars were spent on legal/lobbying efforts to get more education dollars

Nearly all that could have been avoided had the Court not made the tantalizing declaration in Gannon I that it really wasn’t about the money, it was about being “reasonably calculated….” So much for the “variety of ways” stated in the first Gannon opinion. All they had to do was direct the Legislature to go back to Montoy and add some more money for inflation.

The irony to all this is that the plaintiffs asked in the beginning that Gannon be reopened as an extension of Montoy. They were refused, forcing a new trial to be convened. Ultimately, the resolution turned out to be nothing more than Montoy revisited.

If a documentary about Gannon is someday produced, there’s only one theme song befitting: Everything Old is New Again.

And the beat goes on. Assuming the Court dismisses Gannon next summer, it’s highly unlikely Kansas has experienced the last of education funding lawsuits. The ride on the lawsuit carousel most assuredly will not be over, it will merely be put on hold. For when the next inexorable downturn in the economy shrinks the state’s coffers, another lawsuit is sure to follow.