First, conservatives in Kansas who were upset about court orders requiring lawmakers to spend millions more on public schools railed against “activist judges.”
Then they took dead aim at the state Supreme Court, staging a multimillion-dollar campaign last year aimed at removing five judges.
With those efforts failing to produce the desired results, the focus now has shifted to rewriting the Kansas Constitution. One leader of this effort is none other than Ron Ryckman, the Republican House speaker from Olathe.
His target is a single word in the constitution: “suitable,” as in the state must now provide a “suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” Change that word, and it could become more difficult for school districts to successfully sue for more state funds.
Conservatives have long maintained the courts had no business demanding that more money be spent on public schools. That, they said, was the Legislature’s purview. Nonetheless, last month the Kansas Supreme Court determined that the state’s new school finance system was unconstitutional because it didn’t spend enough on education. That ruling was the result of lawsuits filed by beleaguered districts that said the $488 million that lawmakers added to the school pot over two years still fell short.
In the wake of that ruling, some lawmakers have talked openly of defying the Supreme Court’s order rather than coming up with the additional $500 million to $600 million that’s probably needed to satisfy the court.
We understand that we’re talking big dollars here. In a state the size of Kansas, these are sums that require tax increases, and nobody is wild about that, particularly when 2018 is an election year.
But the simple fact is that the state Legislature has failed for years to adequately fund schools, and dozens of lawmakers in Topeka understand that.
Numbers don’t lie. In June, the state was spending $4,006 a student. A decade ago, lawmakers agreed to a base level of $4,492 per student. Adjusted for inflation, that figure would be $5,035 today.
In other words, we’re way short of where the Legislature itself has determined we need to be.
That’s why all this talk about rewriting the state constitution is pure silliness. We should call it what it is, and that’s political kowtowing to the right wing of the Republican Party. That wing is demanding that lawmakers stand up to the court, say “never mind” to the constitution and refuse to go along with all these demands to fund schools.
But the rule of law suggests something else, and so does Kansas’ distinguished heritage, which has long held that quality public schools are priority one.
Conservatives will stomp and snort and bellyache. But at the end of the day, probably shortly before they adjourn the 2018 session, the GOP-led Legislature will adopt a funding formula that will satisfy the court.
What’s happening now is like what happens when kids play a game and decide to come up with their own rules. We should expect more from legislative leaders.
The reality is that Ryckman doesn’t have the votes to pass a constitutional amendment on school funding, and he knows it. Changing the constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate, and those votes aren’t there.
In the meantime, consider all this change-the-constitution yak as just more political hot air.