The Buzz

In State of the State address, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback tells courts not to order school funding

Updated: 2014-04-16T17:58:04Z

By BRAD COOPER

The Kansas City Star

— With a landmark court case on school finance looming, Gov. Sam Brownback delivered a stern message to the courts Wednesday about who bankrolls education in Kansas.

“The Constitution empowers the Legislature — the people’s representatives — to fund our schools,” Brownback told lawmakers Wednesday night in his annual State of the State address.

“This is the people’s business, done by the people’s house through the wonderfully untidy — but open for all to see — business of appropriations,” the Republican governor told an audience that included members of the Kansas Supreme Court.

Brownback’s comments were timely. The court could rule any day on a lawsuit seeking upward of $600 million in added state funding for local school districts.

The governor sounded a theme voiced by many conservative lawmakers still stung by a state Supreme Court ruling in 2005. That decision forced the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on elementary and secondary education.

Conservatives argued the court overstepped its authority by prescribing a specific funding level for schools. They say that’s a political decision, not one that should be made in the courts.

The state pressed that position in court last October in rebutting arguments that the Legislature backed away from promises to increase funding for schools in line with a mandate in the state constitution for “suitable” school funding.

A ruling similar to the 2005 decision could send this year’s legislative session into a tailspin. It’s unclear where the state would find hundreds of millions to add to the state funding formula.

Brownback took steps in his speech to rebuff critics who don’t think he supports schools, namely with a plan to fund all-day kindergarten in Kansas.

The plan would cost $80 million over five years to phase in. The governor’s spokeswoman said the plan could be funded from increased revenues.

“We have a budget that is implementable and sustainable,” Eileen Hawley said in an email.

For the current fiscal year, state revenues were up $7.4 million — less than 1 percent — from projections for July through December.

However, state revenues were down $283.5 million — or 9.3 percent — from the same period the year before.

The governor’s office did not reveal any details about his budget Wednesday night. The budget is expected to be unveiled for lawmakers Thursday.

Funding all-day kindergarten could bring financial relief to hundreds of families who enroll their children in the program.

In Johnson County, 3,600 kids are enrolled in all-day kindergarten in the Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe school districts. Parents pay between $275 and $300 a month to place their kids in all-day kindergarten.

So far, leading lawmakers have been cool to the idea. They’re not only cautious about the price and how it might affect other services, they wonder about its effectiveness.

“This proposal is targeted. It is reasonable. It will benefit Kansas school kids,” Brownback said. “Thanks to the growing economy and the work of this Legislature, it is affordable.”

Brownback extolled the value of the income tax cuts he enacted the last two years, saying they have reinvigorated the state.

But Rep. Paul Davis — Brownback’s likely Democratic opponent in this year’s governor’s race — used the tax cuts to question the governor’s commitment to education.

Davis said schools were cut during the recession with the idea that the money would be restored when it ended.

“Instead, the governor and his allies chose to cut our schools even more — and gave massive tax breaks to a narrow group who need help the least,” Davis said in a statement emailed hours before the governor’s speech was made public. “This choice sent a message to parents, teachers, working families and the Kansas Supreme Court.”

During his speech, Brownback argued that schools are well funded in Kansas.

When all money is considered from state, local and federal governments, Brownback said, Kansas schools receive $12,500 per pupil. That’s much more than the state base aid number of $3,838 per student that many school advocates use to quantify state funding.

“A state that cares enough to make that kind of commitment,” the governor said, “also cares enough to see that the money is spent wisely, and the best decisions are usually made by those closest to the students.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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