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How A Wichita Preacher Became One Of The Most Well-Known Names In Kansas Education

Sam Zeff

This story is part of the NPR reporting project School Money, a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.

Updated, April 29:

There is a showdown coming in the next few days in the Kansas Supreme Court.

The high court will hear oral arguments on a school funding lawsuit filed five years ago and now just coming to a head.

On May 10, the state Legislature must prove to the Court that a bill passed in the waning days of the regular session cures the problem of inequitable funding between districts.

If the justices rule that lawmakers haven't fixed the issue they have threatened to shut down public education on June 30.

The Legislature will argue that it has fixed the problem and that it followed the suggestions from the Supreme Court.

The districts, including Kansas City, Kansas, will say the Legislative fix has actually worsened the problem because only a handful of poorer districts get a little more money.

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The case is called Gannon. We've been hearing that name for years, and it's now part of the legal landscape in Kansas. But there are two men who are the driving force behind the case: lawyer Alan Rupe and Jeff Gannon, whose family name will forever be attached to school funding litigation.

There are two big questions facing Kansas education: Is it fair for all school districts? And, is it adequate for every student?

So you might think that while legislators have big problems to solve soon, at least they can see the end of litigation.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR
Wichita lawyer Alan Rupe in his office. He's been suing Kansas over school funding since 1989.

But this is Kansas, where a generation of educators has rarely seen a time when there wasn’t a school funding lawsuit cooking.

"The Legislature, left to their own devices, were short-cutting public education," says Rupe, who first sued Kansas over school funding in 1989.

In every case, the state has lost, and over the past ten years or so, Kansas has been forced to pump an extra $1.5 billion into public education.

Rupe says Kansas is better because of it. "Our people are our greatest resource, and if we’re shorting these kids in their education just to save a buck, that’s not a smart move for economic development in the state."

But the courts have said that even $1.5 billion more isn’t enough to fix Kansas education.

Which is why we have the current case called Gannon, named for Luke Gannon, the son of a Wichita preacher.

On a  Sunday, Jeff Gannon was preaching about evolution at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. "As a person of faith, I strongly believe that God is the creator of the heavens and the Earth, and God can use evolution as a means of unveiling the whole of creation."

And how Gannon preaches seems connected to his views on education. "I want to be a person of faith who communicates that every person has sacred worth. Every person is worthy of an education. That’s what drives me."

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR
The Chapel Hill United Methodist Church where Jeff Gannon is pastor.

Gannon calls his congregation diverse and, indeed, while mostly white and middle aged, you do see millenials and people of color. It's an ultra-modern church that sits prominently on acres of open land on Wichita's southeast side. It has a high-tech video operation and makes Gannon's sermons available on iTunes.

Gannon began pushing for better public education funding long before the lawsuit.

He led a campaign to pass a bond issue to improve and expand Wichita classrooms.

But, Gannon says, better buildings aren't enough. "We do not have enough teachers. We do not have enough money being spent on curriculum."

Gannon and Rupe hooked up five years ago as Gannon was looking to sue and Rupe was looking for plaintiffs.

In conservative Kansas, Gannon says his lawsuit and activism has cost him friends in the faith community.

"It is disheartening to me to think that because of my views about the importance of public education people in the faith community would say, well, write him off. His view doesn’t matter. I find that sad," he says.

Only one of Gannon’s three children is still in Wichita's public schools, and he says he’ll be intensely watching what the high court does next.

But this is Kansas, where educators are used to showdowns between lawmakers and justices.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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