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U.S. Supreme Court Declines Case on Kansas School Finance

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rebuffed an effort by parents in a Kansas school district to declare a federal constitutional right to spend more on education than the state's school-finance plan permits.

Without comment, the justices declined to hear the appeal of parents on behalf of children in the Shawnee Mission district, which a federal appeals court described as "relatively wealthy" when it ruled in June against the parents' "novel and expansive claims" in their suit seeking "to upend decades of effort toward establishing an equitable school finance system in Kansas."

That was from a unanimous opinion by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, which outlined the lengthy history of school finance litigation in the state, which resulted in a cap on local-option spending on education by local districts, even though the districts' taxing authority is not limited.

In their federal suit, the parents of children in the Shawnee Mission district alleged that their First Amendment free expression rights and 14th Amendment equal-protection rights were violated by the state's bar on local districts being able to spend more on their schools than the state permits.

For their appeal to the Supreme Court in Petrella v. Brownback (Case No. 15-398), the parents turned to Harvard law professor and constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe. He said in a brief that the case presented the justices with the opportunity to take up a question left open by their landmark 1973 ruling, in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, that the U.S. Constitution provides no right to an equal education.

"This case ... presents in fully ripe form the very question reserved in Rodriguez," Tribe said in the parents' brief. "Kansas distributes funding unequally among its school districts and then utilizes an education spending cap to prevent districts that receive less state funds from voluntarily spending more of their lawfully raised local funds to narrow the gap between them and better-funded districts."

"In a nation founded on liberty, self-governance, equal opportunity, and local initiative, it is perhaps surprising that any state would prohibit local citizens from banding together to improve their public schools through collective civic action at no cost to the citizens of other localities in the state and without harm to their children," the brief continued. "But Kansas strangely does just that."

Tribe's brief cited for support the high court's controversial 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which found a First Amendment right for corporations and labor unions to make independent campaign expenditures. 

The brief also appended a brief filed in the appeals court by the Shawnee Mission district and another district that cited a passage from Animal Farm, by George Orwell: "All animals are created equal but some animals are more equal than others."

The state of Kansas did not file a brief in the Supreme Court responding to the parents' appeal.

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