The Kansas Legislature meets in a special session Thursday to grapple with how the state’s schools are funded. If it can’t figure that out by the end of the month, schools may not be able to open their doors.
How did the state arrive at this sad state of affairs? There is no shortage of finger-pointing. The courts blame lawmakers, lawmakers blame the courts and everyone is mad at the governor.
But the real explanation for the Kansas debacle may lie somewhere else.
The state has struggled with school finance for a generation because it still can’t decide if school spending and taxing decisions should be made at the local level, with local school board members, or in Topeka, where state legislators do their work.
To understand why this is important, let’s go back to the early 1990s. That’s when parents in poorer districts challenged the constitutionality of the state’s school system, calling it unequal and unfair. Other states faced similar lawsuits.
In response, a task force essentially recommended one statewide school district. All the money for schools would funnel into Topeka, which would send it back to the schools in roughly equal amounts.
Parents in richer districts howled. Socialism, some said. A guarantee of mediocrity, others suggested.
“You might as well abolish school boards and make them advisory boards,” one Johnson County lawmaker said at the time. “It’s a total shift from local control to state control.”
Yet the Kansas Constitution and the courts were clear: The state, not local government, is responsible for providing “suitable” public education. And by “suitable,” the court meant “reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort,” as one recent ruling explained.
The Legislature’s solution to the competing demands was to split the difference, leaving the state with the strange hybrid funding system used today: School taxes flow to Topeka for roughly equal redistribution, while districts can also enact and keep a “local option budget” tax for additional cash.
The LOB tax is capped, but it gives districts a way to pay for extra staffing, equipment, course offerings and the like. And in wealthier districts, raising that money is easier because property values are higher.
You can see the problem. Parents in poorer districts say unequal school spending is still inherently unsuitable and therefore unconstitutional. The Legislature and the governor squawk, but the state’s judges have more or less agreed with the poorer plaintiffs for most of this century.
Both sides in the long-running debate have strong arguments to make. Johnson County school district patrons say their additional LOB spending provides educational excellence, but it’s hard to understand why students in Osawatomie should face a lesser education than those in Olathe.
At the same time, poorer districts — many in rural areas — can be inefficient and wasteful. When one Kansas county has 3,300 students and eight school districts, you know something is amiss.
Squaring that circle has long been a nightmare assignment for lawmakers and governors in both parties. And the state’s leadership has no room to maneuver. Gov. Sam Brownback has fiercely resisted closing and consolidating smaller districts to save money, and he won’t raise taxes to help poorer schools. At the same time, Johnson County lawmakers have repeatedly defended additional school spending in their districts.
On Thursday, Kansas lawmakers will discuss amending the state’s constitution to reduce the power of the courts in school-related cases. Perhaps it’s time to ask voters a more fundamental question: Should the state control the schools, or should local school boards do the job without state interference?
Lawmakers repeatedly say they’d like to settle the school problem once and for all. Answering the school control question in the state’s constitution may be the only way to do it.