In an important opinion piece in the New York Times, David Sciarra and Wade Henderson explain how a court decision in Kansas might have national reverberations.

In 2009, Kansas, like many other states, slashed school funding while approving tax breaks that benefited mostly upper-income Kansans. Spending on education dropped far below 2008 levels, leading to larger classes, layoffs of teachers and other staff, and cuts to essential services. At the same time, the legislature enacted higher standards. This is a typical “reform” pattern: higher standards accompanied by funding cuts.

Parents filed a lawsuit against the cuts and won last year. But Governor Samuel Brownback is appealing the decision, and the outcome of the court case could affect similar situations in other states.

Sciarra and Henderson write:

KANSAS, like every state, explicitly guarantees a free public education in its Constitution, affirming America’s founding belief that only an educated citizenry can preserve democracy and safeguard individual liberty and freedom.

And yet in recent years Kansas has become the epicenter of a new battle over the states’ obligation to adequately fund public education. Even though the state Constitution requires that it make “suitable provision” for financing public education, Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-led Legislature have made draconian cuts in school spending, leading to a lawsuit that now sits before the state Supreme Court.

The outcome of that decision could resonate nationwide. Forty-five states have had lawsuits challenging the failure of governors and legislators to provide essential resources for a constitutional education. Litigation is pending against 11 states that allegedly provide inadequate and unfair school funding, including New York, Florida, Texas and California.

Many of these lawsuits successfully forced elected officials to increase school funding overall and to deliver more resources to poor students and those with special needs. If the Kansas Supreme Court rules otherwise, students in those states may begin to see the tide of education cuts return.

If the Court sides with the parents, legislators are threatening to amend the state constitution to remove the term “suitable,” so that there are no constraints on their ability to cut the budget for education.

And that is how Kansas plans to reform its schools.