Monday, November 4, 2013
A new decision, Petrella v. Kansas, is out in the Kansas school finance litigation. The litigation has proceeded on dual tracks for some time. Adequacy claims have been litigated in the state court system, while other claims have proceeded in federal court. The state has sought to combine the litigation on various instances, but the courts have declined. The plaintiffs have been very careful in crafting their claims so as to prevent this consolidation.
This new decision is an attempt to undermine the earlier state litigation that had resulted in a liability find against the state. The state responded with a remedy that, among other things, included a cap on the funds that local districts could raise to support local education, with the theory being that this would further equity. A group of parents from a wealthier district then challenged that litigation in federal court arguing it violated various federal constitutional rights, including their fundamental right to direct and control the upbringing of their children. The district court previously dismissed their case for lack of standing, only to be reversed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 10th Circuit remanded and, last week, the district court issued its opinion addressing the legal theories in the case.
The Court held that the funding cap did not infringe on the parents’ fundamental rights. Those parents still have the right to control their children’s education as they see fit. For instance, they are free to withdraw their children from public school if they wish. The Supreme Court precedent creates a relatively narrow right and plaintiffs attempted to apply it far too broadly. In fact, if school funding remedies were deemed to impinge on parents’ fundamental right to control the upbringing of their children, almost every aspect of educational policy might do the same. The court also emphasized the Supreme Court’s holding in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, which had rejected school finance challenges as violating a fundamental right to education. The district court perceived the instant case as an ill-advised attempt to circumvent the more relevant holding and rationale in Rodriguez.
Finding no fundamental right, however, only rules out the application of strict scrutiny. The court found that the plaintiffs had still plead a case of unequal treatment, which was subject to rational basis review. The state had asked that the case be dismissed entirely, but the court found that the question of whether the state had a rational basis for it funding structure was not yet resolved and, thus, the case could proceed on this question. The court did, however, dismiss all the plaintiffs’ other claims.
As to the immediate school funding issues in Kansas, this decision is positive. It prevents third parties (ie, wealthy districts) from trying to impede school finance reform. On the broader horizon, I would note that there is/should be room to still bring certain narrow claims in federal court. For instance, if educational is a fundamental right under state law or students have a constitutional right to education under state law, federal equal protection should attach to that right. In other words, a state cannot extend fundamental or constitutional rights to students and then treat them unequally in regard to that right. Moreover, strict scrutiny should apply to that inequality. Often, the federal review would be applicative of bringing a state claim and, thus, would serve little purpose. But in those instances where state courts backtrack from enforcing rights or state legislatures refuse to comply, a federal claim would offer some benefit. The instant case does not directly implicate those types of claims, but it does amount to another case rejecting a Rodriguez work-around, which is implicitly problematic for my theory.
More on this school finance theory here.